Black Immigrants Join the Debate

Millions of African- and Caribbean-born people are missing from the immigration-reform conversation. A few of them tell The Root that they will not be shut out.

by Cynthia Gordon
Originally posted in the Root

On March 11, 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 told The Root about 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 (pdf), 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.

As The Root noted in a previous article, 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.”

Teleconference III Recording Available: New African Immigrants-Grappling with Concepts of Race and Identity

Apr 4, 2011   //   afican, Africa, African immigrants, identity, immigration, race  

On Thursday March 31st we held our 3rd national teleconference. On this call we listened to a presentation by Dr. Jackie Copeland-Carson moderated by Priority Africa Network Director, Nunu Kidane and then had a discussion with call participants. The conversation is entitled New Immigrants – grappling with Concepts of Race and Identity. If you missed this engaging teleconference please listen to it here -

Dr. Copeland-Carson discussed following topics.
- Figures of increase of African immigrants in the U.S
- Why is this significant, particularly for African American communities
- Understanding the importance of race and immigration as relates to African immigrants
- What are some of the important points to consider for organizers and social justice activists to increase outreach into African immigrant communities
- The need to develop a global Pan African consciousness

Please note that our next teleconference is Thursday April 28, 2011 at 12pm PST.

Videos about African Migration from the World Social Forum

Post by Opal Tometi, BAJI National Organizer

Our final days at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal were a blur. With several meetings, workshops and other impromptu activities we just didn’t have time to capture it all on our blog. However, now that we’re back in the United States we are beginning to reflect on some of the highlights and have some videos we’d like to share with you.

The first is a short video with Mamadou Goita, the Director of IRPAD (Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement), based in Mali. In this clip he briefly discusses the connections of environmental justice and immigration. An issue we are sure to blog about more in the future.

Our 2nd video is with Mary Tal, a courageous migrant justice organizer in South Africa. In this video she tells her personal story of migration and talks about how she’s helping women and their families in South Africa through support groups, advocacy and by providing other social services. Mary’s story is powerful and compelling as she explains how she cast off the shame of being a refugee, empowered herself and found her voice.


Whole World Women Association – South Africa from opal ayo on Vimeo.

Videos about African Migration from the World Social Forum

Post by Opal Tometi, BAJI National Organizer

Our final days at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal were a blur. With several meetings, workshops and other impromptu activities we just didn’t have time to capture it all on our blog. However, now that we’re back in the United States we are beginning to reflect on some of the highlights and have some videos we’d like to share with you.

The first is a short video with Mamadou Goita, the Director of IRPAD (Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement), based in Mali. In this clip he briefly discusses the connections of environmental justice and immigration. An issue we are sure to blog about more in the future.

Our 2nd video is with Mary Tal, a courageous migrant justice organizer in South Africa. In this video she tells her personal story of migration and talks about how she’s helping women and their families in South Africa through support groups, advocacy and by providing other social services. Mary’s story is powerful and compelling as she explains how she cast off the shame of being a refugee, empowered herself and found her voice.


Whole World Women Association – South Africa from opal ayo on Vimeo.

The World Social Forum Workshops Begin

Feb 8, 2011   //   Africa, dakar, social movements, world social forum  
Post contributions by Gerald Lenoir, BAJI Director, Nunu Kidane, Priority Africa Network Director & Opal Tometi, BAJI National Organizer
Today marked the first day of sessions of the World Social Forum in Dakar Senegal. The theme for the day was Africa and the Diaspora and featured a myriad of sessions highlighting issues of relevance to peoples of African decent. And although there was some confusion about locations for certain workshops we managed to find our way to 2 insightful sessions.

One session we attended was a workshop on Intra-Africa Migration that featured a panel of academics, migrants and activists from West Africa that exposed the complicity of West African and North African governments in violating the rights of migrants. The North African countries–Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and Libya have signed undisclosed bilateral agreements with European countries–Italy, Spain, Malta, Portugal and France to act as their border control agents.  North African countries routinely deport Senegalese migrants to their home countries, with many violations of their human rights. Migrants from all over West Africa are deported to Mali without regard to their nationality.  The migrants are often brutalized, robbed and dumped at the borders.  In exchange for their services, the North African countries receive development aid and military aid from European countries.

Senegal has also signed agreements with some European countries to accept deported Senegalese migrants and to provide Frontex, the European Union border control agency, complete and free access to its territory. In exchange, Senegal receives an undisclosed amount of aid.  Mali has refused to sign these types of agreements.

In addition, most member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) do not abide by a protocol on circulation signed by all 16 countries in the 1980s.  The protocol calls for freedom of movement throughout the countries.  But migrants are regularly harassed, jailed and deported. And only seven countries honor the ECOWAS passport.

Ntamag Francois Romero, the director of the Association des Refoulés d’Afrique Centrale au Mail, or ARACEM (Association of Deported Central Africans in Mali), spoke about his work in aiding migrants expelled from North Africa.  Over 100 migrants a month come to the ARACEM center for food and temporary shelter after being deported.  They can stay for two weeks at a time until the next wave of deported migrants arrive.  And the numbers are growing.
Another session we attended was on “Strategies for International Year for People of African Descent.”  Doudou Diene, the former U.N Special Rapporteur on Racism on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance was one of the key speakers. He spoke extensively on the process that led to the Durban Conference Against Racism in 2001 and the challenges related to the declaration and subsequent attempts towards the full implementation.  
 
Also on the panel were Mareille Fanon-Mendes from France, daughter of Frantz Fanon and President of the Franz Fanon Foundation. She spoke passionately about the need to continue building on the foundations set in Durban, South African.   She urged participants the world over to join the mobilization for the next gathering towards this that will take place in New York in September of this year.  Following her was Jan Lonn, Secretary of the World Against Racism Network and Coura Mbaye Swedish Committee for the International Year for People of African Descent.

The day was truly rich and included several formal and informal conversations and meetings along the way. Every moment at the World Social Forum is an opportunity to learn. You never knows whom you are sitting next to until you take the time to introduce yourself and learn about their struggles and victories.
Here are some additional pictures from our day which concluded with a dinner reception hosted by Priority Africa Network for the Detroit to Dakar Delegation.

World Assembly of Migrants

Feb 2, 2011   //   Africa, African migration, immigration, migrants, migration  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Goree Island, Senegal 


Posted by Gerald Lenoir, Executive Director, Black Alliance for Just Immigration


Nunu Kidane of Priority Africa Network, Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and I traveled from Oakland, California to Dakar Senegal to attend the World Assembly of Migrants (WAM) on Goree Island and the World Social Forum (WSF) at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

A statue of freed slaves on
Goree Island donated by the
government of Guadeloupe.

Today, we took the 20-minute ferry ride to the infamous Goree Island where enslaved Africans were imprisoned, brutalized, led shackled through the “Door of No Return” and shipped en masse to the New World.  We were there to attend the opening session of the World Assembly of Migrants.  The Assembly was initiated by a migrant rights organization in France, Sans Papier (Without Papers) to provide the opportunity for migrants from all over the world to give input into the draft of the World Charter of Migrants.  The opening session, attended by over 100 migrants, started with a panel that included the Mayor of Goree Island, a representative from WAM and a member of the leadership of the WSF leadership group.

The Mayor reminded us that the event was taking place on the spot where the first brutal forced migration of Africans took place.  The WSF representative spoke about the importance of migrant rights as a central theme of the Social Forum scheduled to take place February 6-11.

Migrants from all over the world listen
to the opening panel presentations at
the World Assembly of Migrants.

The WAM speaker spoke to the need of the rights of migrant to be recognized.  The draft charter, he said, builds upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People.  As an Austrian, he talked about the “wave of xenophobia sweeping across Europe.”  He indicated that process of input into the charter will make sure that it’s ratified by the people and that it is a people’s document.  The aim is to get the charter ratified by United Nations.

The 2-page draft charter reads, in part:

“We Migrants declare to the world that:  MIGRATION WILL BE A FREE AND WORTHY CHOICE FOR ALL AND IN EVERY CORNER OF THE PLANET…” (emphasis in the original document)

“…We are entitled to the same rights, recognized under exactly the same conditions as everyone else.
Denying this basic principle is a serious blow to humanity, a negation of Humanity. Laws, regulations and practices that do not respect this principle will disappear over time, a ghostly memory of less humanitarian times in the past.
Unequal access to development and well-being within countries and between countries can and should be avoided and are in fact a crime against Humanity. We must prevail over such disparities.”

(To read the entire draft of the World charter of Migrants, go to www.cmmigrants.org


Tomorrow, the day will be spent pouring over the draft document.  There will opportunities for the migrants assembled to give their input.  By the end of the day, the charter will be adopted by those assembled.  On Friday, migrants, along with their allies, will consider the future of the charter.  for many, the future for migrants is depending upon migrants themselves articulating their rights and, together with their allies, fighting for them.


My colleagues and I will continue to blog from the WAM and the WSF until February 11.  For photos of today and throughout the week, go to Priority Africa Network’s D2D – World Social Forum web page at http://d2dworldsocialforumdakar2011.blogspot.com/ 


Migrants in Mali

Jul 24, 2010   //   Africa, African immigration, African migration, migration  

Bamako, Mali, West Africa
July 17, 2010

Gerald Lenoir, Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (www.blackalliance.org) and Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network (www.priorityafrica.org) were in Bamako, Mali to attend the inaugural gathering of the Pan African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights hosted by Institute for the Research and Promotion of Alternative Development (IRPAD) and funded by Open Society Institute, West Africa (OSIWA). The following blog describes the conditions of African migrants who are deported from North Africa and end up in Mali.

We went by taxi more than 10 miles from the center of Bamako across the Niger River to meet with Ntamag Francois Romero, the director of the Association des Refoulés d’Afrique Centrale au Mail, or ARACEM (Association of Deported Central Africans in Mali). The cab let us out on a main street where we were met by an ARACEM staff member who led us the one block down a potholed dirt road muddied by the morning rain.We entered the gate of the rust brown, adobe-like two-story building that housed offices and a shelter for deportees. The shelter residents greeted us with handshakes and “Bonjours” as we entered the courtyard. We made our way into Ntamag’s office where we introduced ourselves and told him that we were interested in knowing about the migration and deportation experiences of the people who come to the shelter. He graciously told us his own story and about the work of the ARACEM.

Ntamag himself left his home country of Cameroon six years ago. He was deported to Mali from Morocco four years ago. He and other migrants who had experienced deportation founded ARACEM in July 2006. It is funded by Caritas, a Catholic relief agency, and other international funding agencies. The funding is often inadequate to feed and pay for unexpected expenses such as hospitalization when one of the refugees is ill. The center therefore requests donations to purchase additional rice and supplies to feed the increasing number of individuals that depend on it.

An astounding 100 deportees a month come to ARACEM for shelter, food and clothing. They are expelled from Libya, Morocco and Algeria as they make the way from Central and West Africa in an attempt to find work. These three North African countries have signed agreements with European countries to act as external border control agents to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Ntamag told us that migrants come to the shelter at the first of the month and in the middle of the month. They have been stripped of their money, identification papers and all of their possessions by the police or border patrol and dropped in the middle of the desert on the border with Mali with no food or water. Some are extremely traumatized by the entire experience, having spent several months and even years in detention before being deported. The difficulty of their situation is too much for some and they “lose their heads,” unable to cope.

The supposed three-day stay usually gets extended to up to ten days after which they must leave because the staff has to make room for the next group of expelled migrants. This leaves the young men in desperate situation with no ability to get resources or identification and no hope of going back or forward. While they are “free” to leave the compound and to look for employment, they have no way to sustain themselves. The government of Mali is one of the few that does not incarcerate refugees in detention centers and they can remain within the country if they so wish.

Many of the migrants are ashamed to return home after being deported and will try desperately to find their way to Europe again. Their families are often destitute and are depending upon them to reach Europe, find work and send part of their earnings home. So they spend their three to ten days weighing their options. If they decide to return home, the staff of ARACEM helps them to contact their family and figure out how to get back to their country—Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic or another country. Some find a way to earn money in Mali and try again to reach Europe. Others, like Ntamag, remain in Mali.

When we asked Ntamag why he left Cameroon, he pointed to government corruption and the exploitation of the natural resources of Cameroon by multinational companies from France, the United States and other countries of the West. Although the vast majority of the people of Cameroon are poor, “Cameroon is not a poor country,” Ntamag tells us.

“The young never have hope,” he says. “You go to Europe to take care of family.”

As we ended our visit, we discussed with Ntamag a project to document the abuses suffered by migrants and a process from them to take their collective cases to the African Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other international and governmental bodies. We agreed to work with him on developing the project and to help to seek justice for people whose only crime was to cross borders.

To hear Ntamag in his own words, click on the link and view the videotaped interview on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8nzAkoPlTM


Pan African Network on Migration Formed

Bamako, Mali, July 18, 2010


Four years ago, in an international conference on migration in Brussels, a small group of activists from various African countries gathered to compare experiences and share stories about migration within and out of Africa. Two years ago, at a similar conference in Manila, a larger group of African civil society members gathered to affirm a similar commitment and hold the first meeting focused on African migrants’ rights.

Another meeting was held in the city of Bamako, Mali in West Africa four days ago. Representatives from over 40 organizations from Africa as well as allies from Europe and the U.S. gatheredto establish the Pan African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights.

Priority Africa Network and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration were honored to have been invited to this historic gathering which was coordinated and hosted by Mamadou Goita from IRPAD-Afrique (Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives for Development) with a grant from OSI-WA (Open Society Institute West Africa).


One of the key missions of the Network is linking the discourse on the effects of globalization in Africa to the current reality of migration and displacement. The first Africa-focused and coordinated migration network will work to bring to international forums the voices and challenges of migration in and out of Africa and increase the visibility of the expulsions, exploitation and abuses that are currently ongoing in Africa, Europe and the U.S.

One of the issues discussed at the meeting was the current bilateral agreements b
etween European and African governments to collaborate in the expulsion of African migrants. In essence, a country in Africa – for example Nigeria or Cameroon – sign an accord with France, to deport all the individuals – back to the poverty and persecution they fled from in the first place. In exchange, the Africa country receives “development aid” compensation which never reaches those most in need, especially not the migrants. These agreements are never transparent and are often times in violation of human rights conventions.

The single exception to this criminal policy of bilateral agreement is Mali which has, thus far, not signed an agreement to accept expelled Mallians from Europe. The holding of the first Network gathering of African migrant rights representatives is therefore very fitting.

If there is a single country in Africa with the highest number of incidents of repression, it is Libya. In the least known bilateral agreement (also never made public), Libya and Italy signed an

accord to prevent and return migrants off of the coast of Libya
and across the Mediterranean.

The most recent demonstration of this abuse is Libya’s detention and expected deportation of some 245 Eritreans from a nation known for the imprisonment, torture and death of its citizenry. These refugees are currently fighting for their lives and asking for international support.


http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/07/02/libya-do-not-deport-eritrean

Other participants in the historic gathering and formation of the Network were members of a deported group of Malians who had organized themselves into a strong grassroots advocacy front. AME (Association Malienne des Expulsés). Similar organizations all over Africa are setting new trends of mobilization of those who have been the primary victims of the most harmful policies. Over the coming months, the Network will ensure that abuses against migrants will not go unnoticed, unreported or unheard. It will bring unprecedented collaboration from organizations who are doing similar work but have not shared and coordinated their work before.

At the conclusion of the gathering, participants affirmed to bring an Africa perspective to the next World Social Forum on Migration, scheduled to be held in Quito Equador (October 8 — 12, 2010), the next People Global Action on Migration and Development in Mexico City (November 3 – 5, 2010) and the next World Social Forum in Dakar Senegal (February 6 – 11, 2011).


Nunu Kidane, Director Gerald Lenoir, Executive Director
Priority Africa Network Black Alliance for Just Immigration
priorityafrica@yahoo.com gerald@blackalliance.org
UA-21961797-1