Mwewa* always knew she was undocumented. “I just didn’t understand what that meant and the consequences it would create for me,” she says.
It wasn’t until a high school classmate, while studying financial planning, asked Mwewa if she had her Social Security number memorized that it began to hit home. As an immigrant from Zambia brought to the U.S. at the age of 4, Mwewa didn’t have a Social Security number. That meant no legal employment, no social services and limited educational opportunities. It was an eye-opening foreshadowing of what she’d face as one of the estimated 585,000 black immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
It’s been 17 years, and now she’s one of the 800,000 undocumented immigrants granted temporary protection through the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA has allowed her to go to college, acquire a work permit and contribute to her adopted home without fear.
But Mwewa was ineligible to renew Thursday for the extension that could protect her from deportation until 2020. Because she renewed a year before President Donald Trump announced his intent to rescind the program, her DACA status is set to expire next August, and she’s facing the devastating reality of possibly returning to a life in the shadows.
“It’s a real anxiety that so many of us face, coming to terms with the fact that we may be forced to leave the only place we consider home, or stay hidden all over again,” she says.
Her only option for remaining in the U.S. legally is if Congress passes immigration reform or, at the very least, legislation that would resolve the statuses of the nearly 1.3 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Mwewa is hopeful that support from African Americans can be the tipping point in the fight for that reform.
The start, she says, is understanding the complexities that make black immigrants and African Americans more alike than different.
“People don’t look at me and think ‘immigrant.’ I’m seen as black and as a woman. Automatically, those are two experiences we’re having together,” she says. “That makes the realities I face as a black woman living in this country no different.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, black immigrants account for about 5 percent of the estimated 11.4 million undocumented migrants currently living in the United States. But they face challenges unique to their blackness, including being detained and deported at a rate more than five times (pdf) their representation within the immigrant population.
Existing within that intersection of both black and immigrant identities can mean never fully feeling a part of either.
“It’s draining to feel like you don’t fully identify with the African-American experience because of your culture, but then also to not have your blackness fully represented within the immigrant movement,” Mwewa says. “So where do I fall?”
Gregory Dear is an activist and organizer with UndocuBlack, an immigration advocacy group, and is among those at the forefront of making sure the voices of black immigrants are heard.
He says that inclusion is essential, not just among immigrant groups that can often be dominated by nonblack, Latino perspectives, but also among the diverse ethnic backgrounds that make up black America today. As the son of Jamaican and Dominican immigrants, Dear says that African Americans and black immigrants are too often pitted against each other for political posturing.
“If we just cut the crap and really break down what immigration does, the ways black immigrants, in particular, have benefited our communities,” he says, “we can have more productive conversations that break down the barriers white supremacy in our society has built between us.”
However, he says, the most immediate need is to understand exactly what’s at stake right now. Dear is most concerned about a potentially “ruthless enforcement of immigration laws” by the Trump administration, mirroring the police brutality that he says the country already witnesses against black and brown people in cities all across America.
Dear is among those in a plethora of organizations racing to help DACA recipients before the deadline and educate them on their rights beyond. Some immigrants face falling back into undocumented status as early as March. Dear and others, like Mwewa, are imploring African Americans to join in the cause, even if fear among immigrant communities means they never know exactly who they’re fighting for.
“It could be the local Cameroonian hair braider or the chef of the Trinidadian restaurant,” Mwewa says. “It’s tough enough being black in America. Coming forward to admit they’re worried about staying here could be a whole new level of trauma.”
With less than 12 months until her own DACA status expires, Mwewa has yet to consider her next steps. She just wants to return to college and give back to the Maryland community she’s been a part of since she first arrived 17 years ago.
“I’m here. We’re here. As your neighbors, your colleagues, friends and peers. When we band together, there’s no stopping us. And we could use the support of our people,” she says.
* Last name withheld to protect identity.