Leonie Hermantin remembers that when she was growing up in New York, her father told her she couldn't date any African-American boys or young men. The thing is, Hermantin's skin is brown. She was born in Haiti and spent 12 years there before her family moved to the United States.
Alexandra King, an African American, says that five Latinos have been attacked and killed since the beginning of the summer in Baltimore, where she lives, and the suspects have been African American. She wonders if anyone is doing anything to get people talking about the rift between African-American and Spanish-speaking people.
Those were two of the voices at a meeting focused on immigration policy at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. The several-day gathering of about 15,000, which takes place every September in Washington, ended Sunday.
Lots of ideas were thrown out at the immigration meeting on Sept. 17, organized by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), but the most popular takeaway by far was that all people of color need to work out their differences and come together behind comprehensive immigration reform. It is essential, given the growing numbers of foreign-born people in the United States. Today there are 38 million people in the country born in other places, said John Flateau, a demographics expert and deputy secretary for intergovernmental relations of the New York State Senate.
The conclusions from the meeting: African Americans need to address their misconceptions that Latino immigrants are taking their jobs, Latinos from other countries must address their racism toward African Americans, Caribbean Americans must work through their distrust of African Americans and vice versa.
"No one wants to deal with the painful stuff," said Hermantin, 52, of Miami, the deputy director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, an advocacy organization.
The Need for Legislation and Grassroots Efforts
A panel of activists and heads of advocacy groups encouraged the public to push their senators to push for the DREAM Act ("DREAM" stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), expected to be taken up by the Senate this week. The legislation would help young undocumented immigrants move toward becoming legal by, among other things, adjusting their status to permanent resident if they have been admitted to an institution of higher education or have earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. The House has not yet taken up the bill.
Panelists also said that Americans can get involved in formal conversations that are quietly taking place now on the local level.
Bishop Orlando Findlayter, chairman of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Churches United to Save and Heal (C.U.S.H.), said his organization has sponsored opportunities for people of color to dialogue. Dr. Ron Daniels, president of the New York-based Institute of the Black World 21st Century, said his group for the last three years has quietly been holding sessions as part of what he calls the Pan African Unity Dialogue. The sessions bring together Afro-Latinos, continental Africans, Caribbean Americans and African Americans, he said.
"We have an interest in consolidating our strength internally," Daniels said. "We cannot just occupy [the same] space and not be in communication with each other."
Panel organizer Clarke, who comes from a family that hails from Jamaica, represents a district in Brooklyn, where half the people of African descent are foreign-born. Last year she sponsored a bill calling for census questionnaires to include a box allowing respondents to indicate if they are of Caribbean origin. The bill was referred to a House subcommittee. In May she sponsored a resolution calling for the recognition of the meaning of the Haitian flag to people of Haitian descent. The resolution was also referred to a House committee. She maintains that divisions only hurt people of color economically and otherwise. She also pointed out that African Americans' descendants were immigrants too, only they came to the United States by force.
People of Color: Strength in Unity
"There are those in this nation who, quite frankly, would want to separate us from this conversation, would want to pit longtime stakeholders—African Americans who came directly in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, who were descended of that—against those who are new arrivals, and I think that we need to guard against that," she said. "I believe the black community probably has much more in common with this cohort of individuals who are undocumented than we do with those who would stand in the way of them being able to regularize their status, than those who would try to pit us one against the other."
Where the rift between African Americans and Latinos is concerned, panelists pushed for conversations between the heads of advocacy groups and people on the ground. Daniels pointed out that it is real that African Americans are left out of construction jobs in New York, where he lives, and that those jobs, primarily, seem to go to Spanish-speaking candidates. One Latino man at the session, who left immediately after making a statement and did not offer his name, said he knows that people who share his cultural background discriminate against African Americans, but, he said, he has experienced discrimination and hate on the part of African Americans.
Janice Mathis, vice president of the Chicago-based Citizen Education Fund, said that her study of data from the census and the Pew Research Center shows that African-American employment tends to be higher in communities with larger immigrant populations.
The most important point for African Americans, and Americans period, to understand is that immigrants in this country came from places they adored and left only because they were forced to escape drastic situations, said Emira Woods, co-director at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a native of Liberia. She also pointed out that many of these drastic situations have been fostered in part by the United States.
In Liberia, for instance, a place of beautiful beaches, war has raged for 26 years, partly aided by weapons provided by the United States, Woods explained. The African nation was founded as a haven for former slaves from the U.S.
Said Kyle Bragg, vice president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union in New York, "We created the immigration policy in this country, and we have a moral obligation to straighten it out."
Clarke said she's fortunate in that she represents a district and comes from a city that is ahead in its understanding of immigration because New York is considered a gateway from other countries. She said she hopes to fan out now and take the unity message to people who haven't had her exposure to immigration issues.
"People get it in New York," she said. "I'm trying to expand the conversation to areas where it's not as simple, areas in the South and the Midwest where for a long time there was what appeared to be a homogeneous African-American population and that have over time witnessed this influx of immigrants."
Melanie Eversley is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area who has covered politics and civil rights for many years.