Suddenly pressed by political imperative and rapidly shifting post-election demographic winds, the U.S. Senate “Gang of Eight” huddled intensely over the most daring attempt at comprehensive immigration reform since 2010. It was an aggressive effort, the scope of which rattled many longtime Hill observers. By week’s end, the most ardent pessimists were forced to acknowledge that a potential breakthrough could be on the horizon.
As Democrats and Republicans wrangled over the details in closed-door sessions, one calculation was clear: it was all about who could win the hearts and minds of Latino voters first. Democrats need that vote to continue dominating the presidential election landscape while hoping to retake the House during Congressional midterms in 2014. Republicans, however, are in a more desperate war for the demographic, recognizing they will need Latino voters if they plan on surviving as a viable national political party.
But, conspicuously absent from the immigration reform debate are Black immigrants, who account for nearly 10 percent of foreign born individuals in the United States. It’s an omission that’s prompted many in the Black immigrant community to cry foul, with others — including African Americans — pointing to willful Washington ignorance of Black migrants as nothing more than run-of-the-mill institutional racism.
“They’re already dealing with enough Black people as it is,” joked a Black congressional aide speaking off record to give a candid assessment. “Do you think they want more coming in to the country?” gesturing towards a phalanx of approaching white congressmen walking down a Capitol Hill hallway.
There is a general feeling among many in the U.S. African Diaspora that Black immigrants are at the bottom of the immigration policy totem pole, due to nothing more than the darker shade of their skin. Latino immigrants, while many are illegal, get the better press coverage, say some. Others point to the disparity in treatment between politically-backed Cuban immigrants and powerless Haitian immigrants, each attempting dangerous trips to Florida shores.
Yet, Black immigrants are the most educated compared to their Latino, Asian and European counterparts. Nearly 50 percent of African immigrants from places such as Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone have obtained a college degree. Only 43 percent of Asian immigrants have obtained a degree, and a smaller 30 percent of immigrants from Europe, Russia and Canada have done the same.
But, while Black immigrants maintain some of the highest higher education rates in the world, they remain invisible in the larger immigration reform debate. Lawmakers in Washington and state legislatures tend to focus on the vexing Latino problem – a natural reflex given the fact that Latinos, particularly from Mexico and Central America, make up the lion’s share of the immigrant population.
“Obviously the size of the African immigrant population is smaller, and they do not have the coordinated or aggregate political power compared to Latinos,” observes Minneapolis-based immigration lawyer and expert Paschal Nwokocha. Nwokocha, Nigerian-born but now a U.S. citizen, expresses deep concern that the Black perspective is left out. As the former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Minnesota/Dakota Chapter, he’s worked closely with legislators such as Congressional Black Caucus progressive Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) on the issue.
“This is a frustrating issue,” argues Nwokocha. “I think a lot of us are left out. And then you have others who don’t want to be identified with the immigration struggle but want to reap its benefits.”
Jeneba Ghatt, a Washington Times commentator and herself an immigrant from Sierra Leone, agrees. “You best believe there are millions of Africans and Caribbeans waiting in the wings, watching and anxious to see comprehensive immigration reform moved because more likely they will benefit.”
“The last time we heard Congress talking about Africans was when the House tried to nix the diversity lottery visa program.”
As the debate rages on, African immigrants seem much more open to an exchange on the mechanics of the reform debate while Caribbean immigrants seem noticeably tight-lipped. When attempts were made to discuss the issue with Rep. Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands — a major entry point for many West Indians — the office seemed reticent, with one staffer only commenting that the Congresswoman “was currently working on a legislative proposal.”
Sources on and off Capitol Hill also note that Black members of Congress are simply not focused on immigration as a priority, despite the fact many of them represent large pockets of Black immigrants.
While African immigrants seemed eager to discuss the issue, calls to other major Caribbean community leaders and organizations went unanswered. An active member of the West Indian community in Washington, D.C. anonymously attributed the silence to “pride.”
“Caribbean people are very proud,” explained the source, clearly perturbed by the question. “They feel that talking publicly about the issue is somewhat insulting or that it lumps them into the same category as illegal immigrants when they all worked very hard and sacrificed so much to become legal citizens.”
Garry Pierre-Pierre, Senior Editor for the Haitian Times and an active advocate within the U.S. Haitian Diaspora, observes that the Caribbean community is simply satisfied with letting the Latino community handle it. “Other immigrant advocacy groups have been working in the background with the Latino organizations,” said Pierre-Pierre. “The other groups don’t really care about being mentioned, they care about the results that are good for all immigrants seeking a path to citizenship and better working conditions.”