Overlooked in the national dialogue and media coverage of immigration reform are the lives and experiences of Black immigrants.
This week that changed a bit when hundreds of Black immigrants, mostly from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America rallied at the U.S. Capitol, participated in a Hill briefing organized by the Congressional Tri-Caucus and lobbied Congress to demand fairness and inclusion in immigration reform while highlighting the Black immigrant experience.
Black immigrants — nearly 10 percent of the immigrant population — are among the most highly educated groups of immigrants in the United States, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. A number of those at the rally said black immigrants find themselves in detention and deportation at much greater rates.
The goal, according to organizers at Wednesday's rally, was to stop the reversal of civil rights gains under the guise of immigration enforcement while seeking just solutions to the immigration system.
Many who spoke at the rally emphasized that unlike many involved in the immigration reform movement, Black immigrants came here with visas and are now classified as undocumented for overstaying their allotted time to remain in the U.S.
Many called on Congress to offer the same redress for African and Caribbean immigrants with visa overstays as will likely be offered to the undocumented people who are seeking a path to citizenship. They demanded that Congress protect the diversity visa program, which is the means through which many emigrated to the United States.
Many who spoke at the rally, including numerous members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) talked about their black immigrant roots, the linkages between black immigrants and African Americans and the connection of the immigrant rights movement to the Civil Rights Movement and the black struggle for racial equality.
The day of action was led by Churches United to Save and Heal (CUSH), Black Immigration Network (BIN) and The Black Institute (TBI) in collaboration with many faith-based and social justice organizations.
Bertha Lewis, President and Founder of the Black Institute told those gathered Wednesday that it was essential that black people visit the Capitol to show that they are also impacted by the immigration system and also desire just immigration reform.
“We want people to know that there is a black face to immigration,” Lewis said. “People from Africa and the Caribbean are in need of comprehensive immigration reform now!
“We want family reunification: Stop tearing families apart. We need an expedited path to citizenship for all children who arrive in the United States. “We've got to end ICE ACCESS programs,” she said. “We don't need local police stopping and frisking and deporting our youth.”
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) connected the struggle of black immigrants for fair treatment to the history of African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement: “Our ancestors were immigrants, unwilling immigrants. And we built this country,” he said.
“I can't believe they [others in Congress] have the audacity to believe they're going to cut us out of immigration reform — the very people who built this country.” Rush said, adding that he prays for the day when black people throughout the African Diaspora come together in unity. “If we come together on one thing, we can change the face of the world,” he said.
Many focused on the contributions black immigrants make to the United States.
“You're spiritual. You're hardworking. You're family oriented. We're going to make sure no one in Congress will forget it,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, (D-NV), the recently elected congressman from Las Vegas.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) discussed the key issues members of the CBC intend to focus on in the ongoing immigration debate.
“Many of you came over on a visa. But you're out of status. We have to make sure that both the undocumented and those who are out of status are treated the same. “We're going to ensure diversity visas are not shut down.”
Bishop Orlando Findlayter of Cush also drew linkages between African Americans and Afro Caribbean people. “Some of the slave ships went to North Carolina and South Carolina but some went to Jamaica and Trinidad,” he said.
“We're saying to the president and Congress, it's our time,” he said. “We want comprehensive immigration reform and we want it now!”
In addition to the rally and Hill briefing, those at the rally met with staff of Senate leaders Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Harry Reid (D-NV) and staff of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that is currently engaged in writing the Senate version of the immigration bill.