In the ongoing discussions about immigration Black immigrants continue to be largely unseen and unheard, scholars, activists and others say. But, the Congressional Black Caucus has vowed to ensure that Black immigrants are given a place in the current conversation.
“Black immigrants have contributed a great deal to our economy and culture, and the Congressional Black Caucus wanted to make sure their voices are heard in the debate on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), co-chair of the CBC’s immigration committee.
According to the Center for American Progress, there are more than 3 million Black immigrants in the United States, comprising 8 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population. More than half of these come from the Caribbean, with the rest coming mostly from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa, and a smaller number from Europe and Canada.
Those immigrants are “highly urbanized,” and tend to cluster in East Coast cities such as New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Miami, which offer ready access to immigrant networks and their home countries, said Randy Capps, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Those migrants face numerous challenges, including language barriers that stymie upward mobility, low-paying jobs, blighted neighborhoods and institutional and societal discrimination.
“Informally, many people have argued about the historically racialized impact of the immigration law,” said Mariela Olivares, who teaches immigration law at Howard University School of Law. “Many scholars, activists, etc. would argue that race does have an impact on” the application of immigration policy.
For example, Haitian-Americans in Miami last year staged a protest of U.S. immigration policies that favor groups such as Cuban immigrants. Currently any Cuban who makes it onto American soil may stay, but the same is not true of Haitians seeking asylum.
Such discrimination may also explain the high level of unemployment and low wages among Black immigrants compared to other similarly trained immigrant or native workers, Capps said. In 2011 Black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate—12.5 percent—of any foreign-born group in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many of the stereotypes and resulting prejudices against Black immigrants are unfounded, Jeffries said.
“The Caribbean-American and African immigrants that I represent … are hard-working, entrepreneurial and family-oriented,” he said. He later added, “We should not be selective of who we encourage to come to America because our country is strong because of that diversity.”
Both President Obama’s legislative guidelines and those of a bipartisan group of senators include a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, including 400,000 Black immigrants. That pathway would include paying taxes, passing a background check, paying a fine and learning English.
There is also a bipartisan push to retain and attract highly skilled and educated immigrants, a change that could greatly benefit Black Caribbean and African immigrants, who tend to have higher levels of college education and degree attainment than other immigrant groups.
Other proposals, such as a reduction of the number of admissions based on family ties, would be deleterious to these communities. Most Black immigrants—particularly those from the Caribbean—gain permanent status in the United States based on the application of a family member.
The proposed elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery similarly would have an adverse impact on Black immigrants, particularly those from Africa. The program, which provides 55,000 visas each year to countries underrepresented in immigrant streams to America, accounted for one-fifth of African immigration in 2009, for example.
Proponents have said that nixing the program would “free up” visas, but that is unnecessary, said Olivares, since “only a small number of people come through this pathway.”
Jeffries said others have tried to tie the program to terrorism.
“Some have argued that it’s been a source of access for people with connections to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, but there is no credible evidence presented that the Diversity Visa Lottery program is a gateway for people to come into this country to do us harm,” he said.
Rather, “it’s an important mechanism to ensure that people from all over the world are represented in our society,” the New York lawmaker said, and the CBC would fight to protect it.
Tweaking America’s policy as it relates to refugees and asylum seekers may prove more troublesome, but is an important aspect of Black immigration to the United States, experts say.
For example, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Eritrea and other African countries accounted for 30 percent of all Black African immigrants in 2009. Many of these immigrants tend to be political refugees and often have low rates of education, Capps said. The placement and integration policies also are troubling, he said.
“The focus has been on placing people in low-paying jobs as quickly as possible to get them accustomed to routines of life,” the policy analyst said. “The problem is that these refugees with low levels of education have trouble holding on to these jobs because they are vulnerable to layoffs and the communities they settle in are not always the best.”
Additionally, more resources need to be invested in providing ongoing English-language education, quality childcare, adoption placement and other follow-up services, Capps said.