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Panel Urges African-Americans Participation in Immigration Dialogue


WASHINGTON — The Washington Informer, Margaret Summers writes about a recent panel at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annual Legislative Conference that focused on immigration reform. Panelists urged native-born blacks and black immigrants to work together and combat racism and discrimination.

Participants in a recent Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference panel discussion on immigration, “Bridging the Gap: A Pan-African Approach to Immigration Reform,” said African-Americans and African and Caribbean immigrants must become more involved in shaping immigration policy reform.

Panelists focused on how the political and social concerns of African-Americans and black immigrants intersect, and how black immigrants and African-Americans together could effectively combat racism that affects them both.

“We know this country has a history of exploiting working people of color,” said Dr. L. Toni Lewis, healthcare chair of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Lewis said that federal immigration reform legislation could benefit native-born and immigrants of color, particularly in employment.

Senate Bill S.744, which the U.S. Senate passed in July, addresses employment discrimination relative to immigrants, said Esther Olavarria, the Cuban-born director of immigration reform on the national security staff, Executive Office for the President. “It’s not a perfect immigration reform bill, but it’s consistent with the President’s views that the majority of undocumented immigrants should be able to obtain work permits and not be exploited. It modernizes the legal immigration system, which hasn’t been changed since the 1990s.” The House, which opposes the bill, is scheduled to consider the bill this fall, said Olavarria.

A number of Jamaican guest workers in the audience spoke exclusively with the Informer about their labor situation as one example of immigrant and black labor exploitation. The Jamaicans are part of a group of more than 150 guest workers from Jamaica represented by the Louisiana-based National Guestworker Alliance in a labor dispute.

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Scholar Uses Journalistic Skills to Tell Untold Stories


By Carrie Stetler, Rutgers Focus

As a journalist working in Hartford, Connecticut, Ann-Marie Adams was painfully aware that the city’s daily newspapers ignored Hartford’s thriving Caribbean-American community.

“Talk about invisibility,’’ says Adams, whose parents are from Jamaica. “But what struck me was that I didn’t cover the community either, and that’s my heritage. That’s when I took pains to know the Caribbean-American story. It’s an immigrant story that’s mostly untold.’’

Adams, a post-doctoral fellow and

Ann-Marie Adams

Ann-Marie Adams

lecturer in the Rutgers history department, founded The Hartford Guardian, the city’s first hyper-local news website, in 2004 with personal funding and contributions from the city, foundations, and individual donors. 

Back then, journalists were skeptical that news sites run with public and private grants would work, but Adams and others proved them wrong. The Guardian now gets more than 400,000 hits daily and continues to provide in-depth coverage of the city, with an emphasis on Hartford’s under served neighborhoods, like “little Jamaica.’’

The Guardian wears its mission on its sleeve: civil rights, “responsible social policy’’ and stories that help residents access community services, according to the site’s “about’’ page.

“You’re there to advocate for your readers by serving as a watchdog in city hall and the community. That’s the job of a journalist,’’ says Adams, who will appear at a June 1 New York Times panel on Caribbean-American identity and the media.

Caribbean immigrants are hit hard by limited access to aid and information, she says.

“Not only are they marginalized from mainstream America; they are also marginalized within the black community,’’ says Adams. “Just watching them trying to navigate the system was disturbing. I could see how complicated it was for my relatives with children in the school system. They took it for granted that in America, kids would go to school and get a good education. They trusted the system to treat their children well, but found that was not always the case.’’

Adams says the election of President Obama has focused new attention on black immigrants and what it means to be African-American, a term that in some circles often refers only to descendants of American slaves.

Throughout her career, Adams has fused journalism and academic research.“I started the Hartford Guardian because I saw that as a tool for civic engagement. It’s a bridge from academia to the public,’’ she says. “With digital technology, I can connect my scholarship with underserved communities.’’

Adams is revising her dissertation for her first book, about a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court case in which judges ruled that the state unintentionally segregated schools. The book, “Silent Cries: The Story of Sheff vs. O’Neill,” argues that Connecticut was complicit in segregation efforts by continuing to enforce regulations like an early 20th-century law that prohibited city students from crossing over municipal lines to attend suburban schools. Many other states have county school systems.

Similar laws resulted in the arrest last year of a Connecticut woman charged with “stealing’’ educational services after sending her 6-year-old son to school. Such regulations, which exacerbate Connecticut’s widening student achievement gap, are descended from so-called “black laws’’ of the 19th century, when blacks were prohibited from crossing municipal and state lines, according to Adams.

As part of her research, Adams uses her skills as a reporter to shed light on the history of Caribbean immigrants. Although they have been in the U.S. since the 17th century, their experiences have often been subsumed by the broader story of blacks in America.

“I was interviewing older people about the 1940s and 1950s and asked them what it was like in terms of racial solidarity. They said, ‘oh, we were all black back then,’’’ she says.

But the election of President Obama focused new attention on black immigrants and what it means to be “African American,’’ a term that in some circles often refers only to descendants of American slaves, Adams says.

Many Americans of Caribbean descent are now more vocal about their heritage, and it’s more common for celebrities like Nikki Minaj, who emigrated from Trinidad as a child, and Rihanna, who moved to the U.S. from Barbados, to show pride in their Caribbean roots.

“Black immigrants have realized that their own heritage has been folded into the larger African-American story, and their contributions to American society are obscured,’’ says Adams. “Now, they refuse to be silenced.”

This article was first published in Rutgers Focus magazine.

 

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Black Immigrants Join the Debate


By The Root‘s Cynthia Gordy, Washington Reporter

WASHINGTON, D.C.—This spring, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Tolu Olubunmi came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant for the first time.

“It’s been nerve-racking because it puts me at a risk,” the 30-year-old said of her speech supporting Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) reintroduction of the DREAM Act. The bill, which passed in the House last year but failed to clear the Senate, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths like her, brought to the United States as children. “But I think you have to focus on the individuals to get away from the politics of an issue that’s so divisive. Once you know that there are real people attached to the statistics, then you have to start working on real solutions.”

Olubunmi, who was born in Nigeria, is also one of 3 million black immigrants in this country. Despite moving from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America at a remarkable rate — and despite an estimated 400,000 having undocumented status — they are barely footnotes in an immigration-reform conversation that is usually framed as a Mexican-border issue. But in light of newer, smaller-but-growing communities, as well as recently granted protected status for Haitians in particular, black immigrants are becoming stronger voices, advocating for reform from their diverse perspectives.

Black Sojourners

According to a Population Reference Bureau report, about two-thirds of black immigrants to the U.S. are from the Caribbean and Latin America — mostly Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad — with families that largely began settling in the United States from the 1960s through the ’80s. More recently there’s been a wave of African immigrants, with more arriving between 2000 and 2005 than in the previous decade. The top three countries from that continent are Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Most black immigrants enter the United States legally, seeking education and job opportunities, either by joining immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens or by presenting student or tourist visas with an expiration date. Those who are undocumented often fall out of status by overstaying these visas.

Caribbean- and African-born blacks tend to be wealthier and more educated than other immigrants, a class difference that has kept many from joining Latinos in the immigration-reform movement. But in recent years, with more African and Caribbean people coming to the United States to flee political strife, civil violence and natural disasters, new groups are entering as refugees or asylum seekers. While only 3 percent of immigrants from Caribbean countries, mostly from Haiti, were admitted under the refugee category, nearly 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africans granted legal residence between 2000 and 2006 entered as refugees.

As these flows of people have come from countries like Somalia, Congo, Liberia and Haiti — without the same educational resources allowing them to flourish — many have run into trouble navigating a slow-moving and restrictive immigration system.

Who Gets In
?

Although immigration from Africa and the Caribbean has grown rapidly over the past decade, having contributed to at least one-fifth of America’s black population growth between 2000 and 2005 alone, there are anecdotal arguments that the process is infused with racism and works less efficiently for black people.

Sheryl Winarick, an immigration attorney in Washington, D.C., suggests that the largest hurdles for blacks in the immigration system, particularly those fleeing poverty or civil strife, usually arise from the economic situation in their countries. She explained that most visas require proof that an individual plans to return home after a temporary visit to the U.S.

“Anyone that’s coming from a developing country has a harder time demonstrating their intent to just visit instead of staying permanently,” she told The Root. “If you don’t own a home or have a steady flow of income to go back to, then the government assumes you’re more likely to want to stay here permanently and find work.”

On the other hand, Phil Hutchings, an organizer with Oakland, Calif.’s Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which lobbies for immigrants’ rights, believes that race is always in play. “It factors into whether you get through speedily or whether there’s a lot of circumspection,” he says.

“People who go against the norm of what Americans are ‘supposed to look like’ — and that generally includes black people — have more difficulty,” he continues. “Also, a fair number of African immigrants are Muslim, putting them in a suspect category that makes it harder for them to come here.”

An African Dreamer

For her part, Olubunmi says her challenges stemmed from a rigid policy that makes it impossible for undocumented immigrants to rectify their situation once they fall out of legal status. When she was 14, her mother brought her to Maryland from Nigeria to escape political instabilities. The plan was for her aunt, a U.S. citizen, to adopt her.

“The plan was never to be undocumented,” she says, but the process hit a snag when her papers were filed late. It’s a common mishap. “When you file your paperwork, officials could say that you missed a deadline by a week or two, but they don’t actually respond to you for two or three years because of the backlog. People who are committed to doing the right thing get caught up, unbeknownst to them, in these basic flaws in the system. It’s pretty easy to fall through the cracks.”

Olubunmi graduated from high school at the top of her class and then from college, earning a chemical engineering degree. She anticipated filing her papers with a company that would hire her as an engineer, only to learn that she couldn’t legally get a job. “The law says that if you’re undocumented, you cannot adjust your status while living in the U.S.,” she says. “I’d have to go to Nigeria to sort out the conflict; then, once I got there, it would trigger a three-to-10-year bar from returning to this country. But this is my home.”

Since 2008, Olubunmi has volunteered with various advocacy organizations, working behind the scenes for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act in particular. “We’re not asking for a free pass,” she says, explaining that many would-be beneficiaries were brought over as babies or toddlers.

“People always say, ‘Get in line.’ Well, the DREAM Act creates a line,” she says. “These students are saying that they will do whatever they have to, if it’s going to college or serving in the military. They are just asking for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the country they love.”

A Rising Haitian Voice

David Faustin, 45, says he had a smooth process coming to the United States from Haiti 22 years ago. He acquired his green card upon marrying his wife, who already had permanent residency, and became a citizen after 10 years of marriage. But as the pastor of a Washington, D.C. church with largely Haitian congregants, he has helped many of them through a far more difficult course.

When a devastating earthquake plunged the island into further despair in 2010, he was relieved by the Obama administration’s decision to grant Temporary Protected Status for Haitians who had already been living in the U.S., allowing them to stay here legally and suspending deportations.

“The church brought in lawyers like Ms. Winarick to help people who were scared of applying for TPS because they were of unlawful status,” he tells The Root. “They thought it was a way for immigration officials to know where they live.”

This month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would extend TPS for Haitians, which was scheduled to expire in July, for another 18 months. The department also expanded it to include Haitians who came here up to one year after the 2010 earthquake. “Having protected status is helping a lot of Haitian people to not only make it here and contribute to the American economy, but also to send money to other people back home and help them survive,” says Faustin.

Furthermore, it has empowered more Haitians to organize around immigration reform, partnering with immigrant-rights groups to build a powerful lobby. “In the past it was just the Hispanic community, but the Haitian community has become involved to advocate for what they would like to see happening for them,” says Faustin, citing, for example, amnesty for immigrants who once had legal status but are now unable to resolve their position. “As soon as the government gave them TPS, Haitians decided to take advantage of the momentum.”

Beyond the Border

Hutchings, of the 10-year-old Black Alliance, concurs that he’s seen other black-immigrant organizations mobilize in recent years, including San Francisco’s African Advocacy Network and Chicago’s Pan African Association. “In different parts of the country, black immigrants have developed enclosed communities just to themselves,” he says. “But at a certain point, a community realizes that it needs to reach out to develop allies and meet political officials. Their participation is really about people beginning to take responsibility for their own development in the United States.”

Olubunmi is heartened to see more people from African and Caribbean countries speaking out. “The majority of undocumented immigrants are Latino, but it’s important to recognize that there are different groups involved in this debate,” she says. “I remember once watching Bush talk about creating a path for folks who ‘come across the border.’ Well, if a bill is written from that perspective, it wouldn’t work for everybody.”

Ultimately, she knows that a system that works for everyone will require action from Washington. “I’m a huge supporter of President Obama, but I am very disappointed that we haven’t been able to get comprehensive immigration reform done,” she says.

While she understands that Congress must act, as the president demanded in his recent immigration-policy speech, she maintains that he has executive authority to make some changes himself — changes like stopping the deportation of undocumented “Dreamers.”

Until then, Olubunmi is committed to lending her voice to the struggle, even if it now means going public with her own status. “If it will help to raise consciousness, if it will help make life easier for other people,” she says with a quick, nervous laugh, “then I will lay myself at the altar.”

Cynthia Gordy is The Root’s Washington reporter.

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Immigrant Communities to Census2010 : Count Us Out


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Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has time and again upheld the spirit and confidentiality of census information, issues regarding access and privacy continue to persist with communities across the state.

Members of the African immigrant and refugee community present unique challenges, ranging from fear of disclosing housing information to overcoming the legacy of brutal regimes in their home countries. Census workers and organizers working with this subpopulation will undoubtedly face these questions in the months leading up to the count on April 1st, 2010.

“Sacdiyo Isse,” a resident in the Skyline Towers, says her greatest fear concerning the U.S. Census is disclosing her current place of residence. Sacdiyo lives in a house with a relative who has more people living in the apartment than the lease allows. She fears that her participation in the census count will jeopardize her current living situation, and place this generous woman and the other inhabitants in a vulnerable position. “I can easily [opt] out of the count and not hurt anyone… I can’t displace the same person who took me in,” she said.

She says the idea of participating in the count brings her anxiety, as she believes this information will be shared with the landlord. When pressed about this fear, she simply said, “I’m one person, [the census count] is not worth all problems I can cause.”

The truth is, Sacdiyo is one of many who will perhaps not participate in the census count because they fear backlash from disclosing residence and occupancy information. For many, it is not far fetched to assume that U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security’s Immigration Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Census engage in a massive collaborative effort.

New Americans from Liberia, Ethiopia, and Somalia also expressed concern that they could not confidently say they had faith in how the information would be used. Though neither sources could cite an incidence of institutional racism or seemed to suggest foul play, they often referred back to their experiences in their home countries. American immigrants and refugees from the aforementioned countries have experienced war, as well as harsh leadership. One woman said her mayor almost fatally shot her son for information disclosed in a news story. Since then, she maintains a strong mistrust of government and would rather share as little as possible, including basic information. “One question will lead to another until I find myself spilling my life story over tea – I’m not ready to put myself in that situation.”

Hannah Garcia, Project Director with the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing oversees census outreach to various communities, expressed that many immigrants and refugees mistrust the census because these communities have traditionally been undercounted, and do not trust the benefit factor of participating in the census.

“Too many communities feel like they have not yet reaped the benefits of being counted, and too often people will say, ‘we’re used to feeling like we don’t count, so there’s no point.’” Another organizer described this mentality as “a cyclical issue.” He added that the more communities fail to participate in the data collection process, the more they lose. “We anticipate better engagement this year because the last two census counts disproportionately missed ethnic minorities, but the organizing scene in 2010 is radically different from those years because more of those doing the count will represent the communities they will work with.”

The census campaign is centered on the idea of 10 questions over 10 minutes, a simple process that captures a snapshot of America. Even though the poster has been translated into different languages, it will perhaps take decades before communities are familiar and appreciative of this process. The census form which provides limited options for African immigrants and refugees to identify themselves as such will likely compound the feeling of exclusion. These groups will have to write in their hyphenated identity. The 2020 census will likely have to address emerging identity issues in order to provide options for people to self-identify. According to Representative Keith Ellison, organizing efforts will promote write-in opportunities for communities who find themselves unrepresented in the current format.

“New Americans are among the best citizens… they are knowledgeable on history and politics through the naturalization test and the pathway to citizenship. They are already invested in the engagement and activism, our job is to ensure that we carry out an inclusive count that addresses language and other barriers.” Ellison stressed that steps were being taken to build trust with undercounted communities, and his office worked to create a network of partners from different communities. Ellison says he believes the 2010 count will outperform our projected numbers and has hope that Minnesota will be able to keep it’s eighth congressional seat.

While community organizing efforts have heavily addressed language issues by hiring diverse staff and translating material, other questions remain. The Director of the U.S. Census, Dr. Robert Groves, said building trust takes time and that while it is difficult to erase the memories that people have of government either here or abroad, the U.S. Census is investing in diverse and capable staff to reach out to all communities. The challenge is, of course, communities vary and maintain unique challenges, as there is not a blanket solution to working with historically underreported communities. For example, what happens when you have communities that come from countries that have a brutal history of intimidating its people? How do you provide relief and security to those with ambiguous immigration situations fearing deportation or those in compromising housing arrangements?

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Black Immigrants Rights Group Dispels Misconceptions


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OAKLAND, Calif.—The Black Alliance for Just Immigration–a key player in immigrant rights advocacy and education–inaugurated their new office in downtown Oakland, starting off the year with an open house event attended activists and community leaders.
Unlike similar organizations, BAJI’s work extends beyond pushing for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. They believe in a long-term solution that brings forth information and dialogue on race, globalization and social justice among African Americans.

“No matter what legislation passes, it wont settle the issue of immigrant rights: it may or may not help us develop a social movement. We need to understand that whatever happens with immigration legislation, the struggle continues even after the battle is won or lost,” said BAJI Director Gerald Lenoir.

Their focus lies on directly addressing the root of the problem: misinformation among the African-American community and a general lack of knowledge regarding the international economic policies directly linked to immigration.

The organization organizes meetings within churches, community colleges and universities, black and associated student unions with means of developing a progressive African American advocacy movement to help in fostering dialogue about U.S. immigration policy its underlying issues of underrepresentation, racism and economic inequity.

Lenoir described a notion that involves immigrants taking African Americans’ jobs and even further, their social, geographic and political space.

Lenoir explained, “This is a very emotional issue for African Americans because there is a feeling in a section of our community that we’ve been dissed, that we have lost rights, that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement are being reversed and other people are benefitting for what we fought for.”

A 2006 report conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 34 percent of African Americans feel immigrants take jobs away from American citizens, rather than take jobs Americans do not want. The study also shows that 22 percent of blacks claim that they or a family member lost or did not get a job because an employer hired an immigrant worker.

It’s a belief BAJI is working towards dispelling.

While the majority of documented and undocumented immigrant populations in the U.S. are predominantly of Latino origin, there is also a significant African immigrant population in search for the same “American dream,” an idea that many still struggle to define.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Research Center, there are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Of that total, approximately 78 percent or 8.7 million are from Mexico and Latin America, while 3 percent or 400,000 are from Africa, 13 percent from Asia and the remaining 6 percent from Europe and Canada.

Whether it involves the Latino, African, Asian or European immigrant community, these groups are brought together under the same legal, economic and social struggles.

Despite concerns of the African American community, the Pew Research Center study also states that blacks in the general public are more supportive than whites of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. (by 47 percent to 33 percent).

Because of the upcoming congressional elections, chances of a new immigration reform bill reaching the House and Senate floors any time soon, remain bleak. But the movement itself shows signs of revival after Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill, introduced a new bill (HR-4321) last month.

While the number of immigrant detainees is at an all-time high, immigration reform remains a generally unaddressed issue backed by a movement that seems to be simmering under the surface.

BAJI Senior Organizer, Phil Hutchings, believes the movement itself seems to be gaining momentum on its own as immigrant rights supporters who played a key role in Obama’s 2008 presidential victory are beginning to demand action despite other priorities in the government’s agenda.

BAJI’s long-term approach to develop a core group of African Americans that would advocate immigrant rights carries enough potential to create a long-term impact.

Lenoir reiterated the importance of building coalitions with immigrant communities and organizations to promote economic and social justice: a key element in this struggle because even if an immigration reform bill were to be passed by congress and signed by President Obama, there is no certainty that the current racial tensions across the country will simply abate, he said.

“Even having won the immigration battle and gotten the green card, immigrants are still going to be in the bottom of the pecking order: the struggle doesn’t end there,” affirmed Hutchings.

Lenoir highlights the problem with the shortsightedness in many sections of the movement. He believes there is too much of a focus only on legislation without taking on the larger struggle for social justice.

BAJI was founded in 2006 after an anti-immigrant bill introduced in the house resulted in massive pro-immigrant demonstrations nation-wide in retaliation, giving life to what later became a Republican haltered McCain/Kennedy Immigration Reform Bill.

Three years ago, the Priority African Network, of which Lenoir is a member, joined forces with Bay Area activists, including Rev. Phillip Lawson, leader during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and Reverend Kelvin Sauls, a South African immigrant to create BAJI.

The goal is to get us all on the same page. “We don’t feel like we can win the immigrant rights movement, let alone the larger fight for social justice unless we understand the interplay of race and economics exportation in U.S. society and the world,” said Lenoir.

BAJI has also been instrumental in the creation of a national initiative called the Black Immigration Network, being one of three groups that convened a meeting in Baltimore last April, where they gathered 50 African Americans and black immigrants from about 18 countries to develop a national network to share strategies, resources and increase campaign collaboration.

This effort comes in response to the lack of black immigrant leadership in the immigrant rights movement. But regardless the harsh reality of immigration reform and the difficult task that lies ahead for BAJI, Lenoir remains confident in their long-term approach.

“I’m optimistic that in the long run, we can build a movement where we can bring immigrants and African Americans together.”


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