The administrative relief measures that President Barack Obama announced Thursday will benefit an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. This long-awaited measure came several months after the president promised to take executive action in the absence of any cooperation by an obstructionist Congress to pass legislation.
What some, including The Root’s Charles Ellison, are calling a risky political concession to Latinos is really a much-needed executive action taken by the president that will benefit African, Caribbean, Afro-Latino immigrants and African Americans. For me as an immigrant-rights activist and the daughter of Nigerian parents, the president’s decision is both politically and personally significant, as it is for my family and the communities that my organization—the Black Alliance for Just Immigration—fights for every day.
Black immigrants, African Americans and other communities of color are closely intertwined. Historically and currently, we win when fighting side by side for social progress, and now is not the time for us to be divided by the politics and trade-offs that Ellison suggests. When we take into account the realities of anti-immigrant policy, including voter-ID laws and legalized racial profiling, in measures such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, it is clear that immigrant rights are a racial-justice issue, tied closely to the social and political priorities of African Americans.
The diversity of our immigrant identities in the black community is often obscured. Many of us adopt the identity of “African American” when we are first-generation from Jamaica or Senegal, were brought here as children from Haiti or Belize, or come from Ghana on a student visa and quickly learn to adopt American accents and styles of dress to more easily adapt. When we advocate for civil rights while choosing not to complicate the definition of what it means to be black, it leads us to the mistaken idea that immigrants and African Americans are mutually exclusive groups. The immigrant-rights movement has largely focused on Latino issues, at times obscuring the realities of the many different faces of immigrants in this country and leading many of us to draw the mistaken conclusion that immigration should be a low priority.
Black immigrants in particular face the same conditions of inequity that African Americans do. Police, employers and bigots do not ask for a person’s country of origin before discriminating. Immigrant communities face the same neighborhood displacement as black communities in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
When we look at black immigrants, who suffer significantly higher deportation rates in cases of criminal apprehension than Asian, Middle Eastern or white immigrants, we see that racial profiling is at play. Under the administration’s new executive action, we must acknowledge that increased immigration enforcement could lead to more policing in the neighborhoods that we all share.
To make matters worse, President Obama’s framing of “felons, not families” is bad for our communities. It is widely known that African Americans have long been victims of profiling, sentencing discrepancies, false arrests and worse. We believe that anybody—immigrant or otherwise—who may have a conviction should not be exiled from our communities. Regardless of the situation, we know what the legacy of criminalization has done to all black communities in this country. It has left us weaker, fragmented and unable to address long-standing issues. Not only is immigration a black issue, but African Americans and immigrants of color are also facing common threats, which we can defeat if we stand united.
For those who argue that immigrants threaten African-American jobs, this is not the case. The real employment threats in the black community are union busting, substandard education and systemic racial discrimination. Black immigrants are also subject to this same race-based discrimination. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black immigrants in 2011 had the highest unemployment rate of any foreign-born group in the United States. They also earn lower wages compared with similarly trained immigrant or native-born workers. African Americans and immigrants should not give in to divide-and-conquer strategies from the political right. Instead, we should look to studies and data illustrating that immigrant workers are not taking jobs from African Americans.
Pitting African Americans against immigrants is a false dichotomy. African Americans are uniquely positioned, as leaders of the most successful progressive movement in this country’s history, to bring about significant change across social issues and should rightly hold President Obama and others in power accountable. Just as in the civil rights movement, when issues of housing, voting, employment, wage discrimination and public accommodations were addressed to the benefit of everyone in society, so it should be today with immigration policy. Seeing these issues as separate is bad politics, and we offer a better direction. BAJI will continue to fight for social and economic justice for all. That is our commitment, until we all win.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Opal Tometi is executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an education and advocacy organization made up of African Americans and black immigrants working at the intersection of racial justice and migrant rights. She is a first-generation Nigerian American who was born and raised in Arizona and has been active in the migrant-rights movement for more than 10 years.