(The Root) — Immigration reform has emerged as the most-talked-about domestic-policy issue of 2013. In his first major interview after winning re-election, President Obama dubbed it one of his major second-term priorities. But perhaps more notably, high-profile conservative Republicans have latched onto it as well. Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity announced a political about-face on the issue immediately after the 2012 election, declaring his newfound support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Hannity's voice has been echoed by Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are working with Democrats to find a bipartisan solution to the current immigration crisis. But the most prominent Republican voice on the issue is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The Cuban American recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline "The Republican Savior: How Marco Rubio Became the Voice of the GOP."
Rubio has emerged as the voice of the GOP in part because he is a telegenic Latino, and it is believed that he can help the party appeal to America's fastest-growing demographic — Latinos — in a way that other Republican officials may not be able to, particularly on issues like immigration. But Rubio's rapid rise as the legislative voice of this issue raises an important question: Are non-Latinos being forgotten in the immigration debate, particularly those of African descent?
Of the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2011, 80 percent came from Latin America, including Mexico. But Hispanic immigration is decreasing, and according to CBS News, "For the first time since 1910, Hispanic immigration last year was topped by immigrants from Asia." In an interview with The Root, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) explained that while some of the challenges facing immigrants are universal, others depend on the country of origin.
Beyond Border Crossings …
Clarke said of her district, which encompasses the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., "Just about every single island of the Caribbean [is] represented in my district, combining to make a Caribbean community or an immigrant group that's not typically the face of immigration." Clarke explained that part of why non-Latino immigrants are rarely discussed by the media or by politicians is in part because their arrival in this country is often not as controversial as that of their Latino counterparts.
"When you talk about immigration, people often think of individuals who enter by crossing the Southern border [without papers], but many other immigrant populations enter the United States on some form of documentation, typically a visa," she said. She went on to explain that some of them, though, overstay their visas or other documentation, "and end up in the country undetected and out of status."
Clarke's point highlighted a fundamental divide regarding the focus of the immigration debate today. While many conservatives, including conservative Democrats, want immigration reform to focus on issues like Southern-border security and learning English, as Clarke explained, for many non-Latinos these are not as relevant.
As she noted, many immigrants from the Caribbean already speak English. Instead, their primary problems have to do with the inefficiency of the visa system, something that is highlighted in more in-depth policy discussions of immigration reform but is rarely touched upon in news sound bites, television ads or press conferences.
… But Not the Color Line
Though Caribbean immigrants, many of whom are of African descent, enjoy a language advantage, they do face unique challenges that immigrants from other countries may not. A 2010 study found that lighter-skinned immigrants of any race enjoy an 8 to 15 percent economic advantage in the American workplace over their darker-skinned counterparts. But Clarke noted that economic discrimination is not the only challenge facing Caribbean immigrants in her district and others like them from the Caribbean and Africa.
"If you have aggressive policing in particular communities, you will have a higher [number] of those facing deportation," she said. When I asked if she meant that New York's stop-and-frisk policies, which have been proved to disproportionately target young black men in communities of color, had the potential to result in more deportations of undocumented black immigrants in her community, she agreed.
Clarke is confident that comprehensive immigration reform, a legislative goal that has been just beyond reach the last few years, will finally become a reality this legislative session. When asked to specify which pieces of legislation are most likely to receive the necessary bipartisan support, she cited legislation to help undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
"The Dreamers are first and foremost," she said. "There will also be clarification and expansion and designation of visas." When asked if the momentum behind immigration reform is happening only because Republicans lost the presidential election and key Senate races in the most recent election cycle, she replied, "I think that's a strong possibility. I think it's a combination of [that and] immigrant communities having the courage to talk publicly about the toll it's taking."
She also credited President Obama, but perhaps not in a way he might hope. She noted that the impact of deportations on immigrant families during the George W. Bush administration, and even more dramatically felt under Obama, galvanized immigrant populations out of silence. So did the coming of age of the children who grew up in this country and are now adults — and have discovered that their illegal status prohibits them from giving back in a meaningful way.
As Clarke explained, her parents were immigrants who came to this country from Jamaica on student visas. What she learned from them is that "your goal is to be successful, and that means that you're giving back and establishing relationships to advance yourselves and your family. That's how my family got into public service." She added that being an immigrant in America means "you're essentially a visitor. Until one day you're not."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.