Listening to the presidential debates, voters might be hard-pressed to visualize black faces when the subject of immigration comes up. So far, the discussions have revolved largely around amnesty, national security, and the porous U.S.-Mexico border—subjects that many people associate with Hispanic immigrants.
As a journalist, I have covered issues related to immigration policy; I was also born in Haiti. I've noticed that absent from the debates is any mention of the black immigrants who now make up a good portion of the country's black population and whose numbers are growing. Along with the rest of the nation, we are closely following the presidential campaign and paying particular attention to the candidate who also happens to be the son of a black immigrant. The question for us is not just who would be the best candidate to represent the interests of black immigrants, but how to become politically relevant in a historic campaign.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted more than 3 million people in the United States in 2006 that were born in Africa or in a black Caribbean country. Others listed as "foreign-born" came from Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean and elsewhere in Latin America that have sizeable black populations. Africans accounted for the majority of black immigrants who entered the United States in the first six years of this decade, according to Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research organization. A recent report by the PRB found that the foreign-born black population more than tripled between 1980 and 2005, from 816,000 to 2.8 million. The foreign share of all U.S. blacks increased from less than 1 percent to 8 percent during that period. Two-thirds of those immigrants were born in the Caribbean or a Latin American country, one-third was born in Africa, and the rest were born in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, black immigrants run the risk of being marginalized in the campaign. Their numbers are dwarfed by the 18 million Hispanic immigrants already living here who, along with the 26 million Hispanics born in the United States, have become an influential voting bloc in recent years. They've forced the candidates to pay attention to them and to aggressively court them. Black immigrants have done no such thing, and, as a result, the candidates have yet to see the benefits of mining black immigrant votes.
Part of the problem is that black immigrants are neither a powerful voting bloc, nor big money donors. They don't have an influential political lobbying arm, and their home countries rank low on American foreign policy priorities. And, because black immigrants living here come from different corners of the world, their political views are often shaped by home countries with relatively young and often unstable democracies. Those born in the Caribbean come from societies that have entrenched class biases, while those born in Africa come from cultures that value tribal affiliations over other forms of group identity. Add to that wide cultural and language differences, and the result is a disparate group that often does not recognize their own common political interests as immigrants, much less shared interests with blacks born in the United States.
When my parents moved our family to the United States from Haiti nearly four decades ago, they were more concerned about learning English than understanding the American political process. It was 1969, and the country was at an important historical crossroad, re-evaluating and recasting itself in the wake of the civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. We found ourselves in the middle of a tense racial climate, poor black immigrants who stood out among white Americans and apart from American blacks, and oftentimes we felt alone.
My parents were the typical immigrant strivers, too busy working and trying to keep a roof over our heads to ponder such complicated issues or to teach my siblings and me how to negotiate our new American status. But even as a little girl just entering the first grade, I began to understand that you were either Haitian or American, but you weren't viewed as both. Since I became an American citizen, my life has been one continuous political education. I've watched Haitian immigrants fight for equitable treatment under U.S. immigration laws, successfully push for removal of Haitians from a federal listing of high-risk AIDS carriers, pressure U.S. presidents to help oust Haitian dictators. I understand and believe in the power of political engagement.
The good news is that I am far from the only one. Today, the children of first generation black immigrants, schooled in the United States and shaped by this country's racial dynamics, largely see themselves as black first and immigrant second. They are better educated than their parents, more politically astute, and less fearful of speaking out or taking controversial stands that might reflect on their communities. Through them, their parents are learning the importance of political activism. And as the parents' roots grow deeper here, the idea of someday returning "home" grows more distant, and the idea of influencing public policy becomes more appealing.
More importantly, despite the historical tensions between blacks born in the United States and those born elsewhere, black immigrants increasingly understand that in American politics, where the concept of race resides in narrowly defined notions of "black," "white," "Hispanic," and "other," they will always be seen by the larger white society as, above all else, black. They've also come to understand that they will be treated the same as American-born blacks, whether they live in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans or in Caribbean immigrant enclaves in Brooklyn, in African neighborhoods on Staten Island and the Bronx or black American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.
U.S.-born and foreign-born blacks are increasingly working together to address genocide in Sudan, marred elections in Kenya, and political upheaval in Haiti, among other issues. Together they have pushed for increased international aid to fight famine and disease in poor, developing black countries; and they have pressed for increased U.S. diplomacy in Africa. With the help of the Congressional Black Caucus, they got an increase in the annual allotment of African immigrants allowed into the United States, and the backing of the U.S. military to force the return to power of Haiti's first democratically elected president after he was ousted in a coup.
Black immigrants are becoming citizens at higher rates than in past decades. What they must do next is get involved, really involved, and parlay their new activism into political results. They should form political action committees, embrace the American adage that "money talks," and hold fund-raisers for the candidates they support. They should attend political forums and invite candidates, or their representatives, to speak to their community groups. They should also get a fellow immigrant elected to Congress. For now, Sen. Barack Obama remains the closest symbol of one, and many black immigrants mistakenly believe he is an actual immigrant.
Above all, black immigrants should work diligently to ensure that their issues are addressed by politicians seeking black voter support, and in turn, to support those "black issues" that could ultimately benefit all of us, immigrant and native-born alike.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.