Reform is overlooking black immigrants' needs: Opinion
By Nina Keehan on May 17, 2013
From farmworkers to chefs, nurses to surgeons, business leaders to professors, immigrants contribute important threads in our American quilt. However, as comprehensive immigration reform takes center stage on Capitol Hill, black immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean find themselves largely ignored because of the emphasis on Latino immigration.
Current proposals to cut the diversity visa lottery and family-based admissions would disproportionately impede black immigrants.
Admittedly, black immigrants are far outnumbered by nonblack immigrants. In 2009, 1.7 million immigrants living in the United States were from the Caribbean and 1.1 million were from Africa — compared with 11.5 million from Mexico, alone. Despite the difference, this population represents an increasingly powerful group, accounting for more than 8 percent of the foreign-born population. According to the Population Reference Bureau, immigration contributed at least one-fifth of the growth in U.S. black population between 2001 and 2006.
Haiti is one of the source countries for immigration that has particularly enriched New York and New Jersey. Between 1957 and 1986, when the Duvalier dictatorship ruled Haiti, the United States granted more than 1 million entry visas to Haitians. Tens of thousands more entered the United States on makeshift boats without any documentation. They took huge risks for the possibility of a better life in America. Currently, 33 percent of the Haitian-born population in America live in these two states.
High poverty rates, political deterioration and repression at home are frequent motivators of black immigration. African immigrants, for example, are much more likely than other immigrant groups to be admitted either as refugees or through the diversity visa program.
The same is true of black immigrants from the Caribbean. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a substantial percentage of Caribbean immigrants granted permanent residence in the United States were refugees or seeking political asylum.
Life usually improves for black immigrants once they reach the United States, but many of them still face inequalities in the land of opportunity. The Center for American Progress reports that black immigrants constitute one of the most highly educated immigrant groups, yet they experience the highest rate of unemployment (12.5 percent in 2012) and lowest wages. Black immigrants are detained and deported at five times the rate of other immigrant groups, according to Clergy United to Save and Heal, a Caribbean faith-based network.
And black immigrants are now being overlooked in the discussion of immigration reform. Current immigration proposals focus on providing legal status and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States — the bulk of whom are Latino. Washington’s focus on Latino issues is understandable, given that Latinos make up the majority of immigrants to the United States. But some reform proposals cut legal channels of immigration, even as they extend residency status to undocumented immigrants.
Responding to the government’s poor engagement with black immigrants, a Black Communities for Immigrant Justice rally was held at the U.S. Capitol on March 20. Advocates demanded that Congress protect the diversity visa program and give the same allowances to black immigrants who have overstayed their visas as will be given to Latinos.
The diversity visa lottery makes visas available to countries with low immigration rates, such as Uganda. Forty-eight percent of diversity visas now go to African immigrants. Family-based admission helps reunify families after one member has legally established residence in the United States. Cutting this program would separate local Haitian families working hard for a chance at the American Dream.
Immigration reform should not pit one group against another. As new immigration policies are set in coming months, black immigrants deserve an equal voice in the discussion.
Nina Keehan works in media relations at Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging U.S. lawmakers to end hunger at home and abroad.