Don't Sleep on the Black Immigrant Vote

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Watching Sen. Barack Obama trounce Sen. Hillary Clinton week after week in primary sweeps this month has made it easy for his supporters to imagine him cakewalking his way to the White House. After all, the man has been leaving fans breathless as he rides a wave of momentum from one state to another.


Maybe it's time those fans took a deep breath and considered this: The primaries Obama lost where in states with large numbers of Hispanic voters, many of them immigrants or the grown children of immigrants, who gave Clinton an edge.

While Obama did get a respectful showing of Hispanic support in places where he campaigned hard for them, he was not able to overcome the longtime affinity that Hispanics have for former President Bill Clinton and, by proxy, his wife.

Texas, which holds its primary on Tuesday, will be a big test for Obama. If he can win over Hispanic voters there, he may be able to win the state. He won't be the only candidate trying to take those votes away from Clinton, however. Sen. John McCain, a pro-immigrant Republican and unlikely standard bearer for a political party many consider hostile to immigrants, has been reaching out to them too. But he will have a harder time surmounting that antipathy among Hispanic voters.

Both men have been polling well in Texas, and last week Obama's numbers shot up and put him in a dead heat with Clinton. Hispanic voters are certain to play a major role in choosing the winner. Still, if every vote in this hard-fought race really counts, and they do, then Obama in particular should also be assiduously courting black immigrant voters in Texas and around the country even as he woos Hispanics – and not just during the primary season but alsogoing into the general elections next November.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the nearly three million Texas residents classified as "foreign born" in 2000, some 64,470 were born in Africa. Another 132,754 of the state's residents listed their ancestry as "sub-Saharan African" and 40,345 said they were of "West Indian," non-Hispanic ancestry, which generally refers to a black person of Caribbean descent. The numbers may even be higher given the generally low Census participation rates in immigrant communities.

Black immigrants are a fast growing segment of the American electorate who are becoming citizens and getting involved in politics at higher rates than ever before. Just two weeks ago, a Haitian-American couple from Virginia launched, with the banner "Wi nou kapab!" a Haitian Kreyol translation of the Obama campaign's "Yes we can!" mantra. With one million Haitian-Americans — immigrants and those born here – living in the U.S., the site has great outreach potential.


Both Obama and McCain have qualities that appeal to black immigrants, but for obvious reasons, Obama has more to gain by bringing them into his fold. As the son of an African immigrant whose lead in the presidential race is the embodiment of the ultimate American Dream, he is living proof that even the son of a Kenyan goat herder can achieve great things in the land of opportunity, cliché notwithstanding.

McCain is admired for his principled and practical stand on immigration and his social conservatism appeals to like-minded black immigrants. He reached across party lines in an unsuccessful attempt to reform the nation's immigration system and crafted legislation that was ultimately rejected that would have helped some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. legalize their immigration status. He often refers to illegal immigrants as an important component of the nation's economy that cannot realistically be deported and should not be allowed to live on the margins of society.


Ohio, which also holds its primary on Tuesday, also has a substantial number of blackresidentswho are immigrants or come from immigrant backgrounds. Some 65,250 residents reported their ancestry as sub-Saharan African in the 2000 Census, and 11,375 said they were of West Indian, non-Hispanic ancestry. Separately, some 22,000 residents said they were born in Africa.

Black immigrants have established large enclaves throughout the country. Washington State, whose primary Obama won, is home to communities of Somali and Eritrean immigrants. Washington, D.C., has a huge Ethiopian population. In New York and Miami, Haitian and Jamaican immigrants dominate the large West Indian-American community, which also includes a good number of Trinidadians and others from the Caribbean. Boston has Cape Verdeans. Immigrants from countries throughout the African continent have settled in states all over the South and, also in the Bronx and other northeastern cities.


The candidates should be engaging these black immigrants in their local newspapers. They should be holding forums with them at their community centers, civic clubs, and places of worship. They should advertise on immigrant radio stations, and take part in call-in programs on immigrant talk shows. (Even in the Internet Age, radio remains the primary source of news dissemination for most black immigrant groups.)

The candidates should court black immigrants not just because they can provide crucial votes in these very competitive primaries and in the general election, but also because the candidates can point to these large populations of black immigrants to bolster their arguments for supporting immigration reform, which would benefit large swaths of undocumented black immigrants. By paying attention to black immigrants, the presidential candidates will also get points with the larger African American community which has long voiced resentment over all the attention being given Hispanic immigrants.


The candidates may have to work a bit harder on black immigrant women who support Hillary Clinton, however. These women are impressed by the possibility of the world's superpower electing a woman, no small thing for people who come from patriarchal societies where women are highly marginalized and rarely become presidents.

Still, the black immigrant vote is mostly Obama's to win – or lose. More than the other candidates, his life story is one that resonates deeply with immigrants. Those who made the decision to come here are following a path similar to the one Obama's father took, one guided by ambition and the desire for unending opportunities they could only dream about back home. They believe anything is possible in the U.S; and even though they are constitutionally prohibited from running for president, their American-born children may one day be writing their own versions of "Dreams from My Father," Obama's best-selling memoir.


Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.