Post by Tia Oso, BAJI Arizona Organizer
Around a table of African immigrants in Las Vegas, preparing for President Obama’s January 29th speech on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the questions flew. What will President Obama do for us? Will Africa be acknowledged? We are so different, how can we come together on one issue? Students, business owners and professionals in medicine and other fields voiced their concerns from personal experience. After telling stories and voicing strong opinions, we decided on a common thread. We want immigration reform that simplifies the process of immigration for our families and encourages success. We want policy reform that reflects the interests of Black immigrants. We want President Obama to support our American dream.
As we lined up to enter the gymnasium to hear the speech, some of us dressed professionally, some in fine African attire with prints from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Gabon. We got looks and of admiration, smiles and handshakes. One of the members of the Cameroon American Council delegation remarked “we are the only Africans here”.
“Stars and Stripes Forever” and other patriotic marching songs played as the President’s arrival became imminent. The crowd cheered enthusiastically when Congressman Steve Horsford (D-Nevada) appeared. Horsford is the first person of color to represent Nevada in Congress, and he met with several members of Nevada’s immigrant community the evening before the speech. The assembled group recited the pledge and sang the National Anthem with enthusiasm. It caused me to seriously ponder, in light of the subject of the meeting, when will these lofty words “liberty and justice for all…land of the free” ring true for ALL Americans?
As President Obama began his remarks, he laid the groundwork framing the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” with various stories of hard fought journeys from Mexico, Ireland, Italy and Germany, even the West Indies. Notably absent, however, was any mention of any of the 54 countries in Africa. In telling the story of immigrants “doing their part to build this country by hand” while facing “hardship, ridicule and racism” there was no reference to the FREE labor of African slaves brought the U.S. in chains to do that building. It is the free labor of African slaves and low wages during the industrial revolution that propelled America’s economy to be the strongest in the world. To flat out omit the truth of this history and the reality of the contribution that millions of Black immigrants make today is an insult. Without the determination of President Obama’s father, an immigrant from Kenya, pursuing a life in the U.S and the hard fought battles of African-Americans breaking the chains of slavery and asserting their civil rights, President Obama would not be President today. I cannot accept the absence of our forefather’s dreams in a speech before the entire nation in this pivotal moment in history. How can Obama say that we must “remember where we come from” and deliver a speech that denies his own roots! Perhaps, he should remind himself of his own reflections and musings on race and its implications on the history of this nation and his life in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995).
Many African immigrants shared my sentiment of disappointment in the President’s remark, demanding “Don’t forget about Africa” as he shook hands on his way out of the hall. In the fight for immigrant rights and social and economic justice, this is just the beginning. Many of us, individually, in communities and organizations have been forced to face the reality of America’s “broken immigration system” for generations. Through bureaucracy, quotas, thousands of dollars spent, blood, sweat and tears to make a better life for ourselves and our families, we have pressed on, determined to succeed. How can President Obama champion the story of Mexican American “dreamers”, while simultaneously ignoring the dreams of his own father? Black immigrants have also endured punitive enforcement measures, I.C.E home invasions and a President, whom many would call brother, touting record deportations as a success as families are torn apart and dreams are destroyed. As President Obama has rolled out a platform of principles that echo right-wing priorities for increased enforcement and border militarizations, penalties and criminalization of migrants and a narrow path to citizenship, we must not be pacified. I call on fellow organizers, activists and freedom fighters to hold President Obama and the United States accountable, once again, to the ideals this country is supposed to be founded upon. We cannot afford to remain silent and our community can no longer wait for its dreams