United we stand, divided we fall.
This theme is more than the title of a popular song in the early 1970s. It is a slogan worth adoption by all immigration reform supporters, by all immigrant communities.
For many years, as a family unity attorney, I have denounced the American public for failing to acknowledge the benefits of cultural diversity which immigrants bring to this country.
My criticism does not exclude any ethnic group.
Whereas members of various cultural groups may appreciate the value of immigration reform for their cultural brethren, they largely ignore the same needs for immigrants of different hues, traditions, and origins.
Towards A New Immigrant-Based Rainbow Coalition
Overcoming this narrow view is critical to developing a political agenda which leads to comprehensive immigration reform.
Yet, given the current tendencies exhibited as part of the immigration reform movement, building a rainbow coalition seems further away from becoming reality at any time since the early 1950s.
This short-sightedness, in part, is due to the limited media emphasis on Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Of course, much of the media view has been shaped by opportunistic politicians, who have created an unreasonable fear of immigrants entering through the nation’s southwest borders.
But the truth is that Latinos are not the only immigrant community growing and in need of immigration reform – and until supporters from diverse cultural groups with a stake in changing our immigration laws coalesce to form a cohesive political front, piecemeal reform measures will remain the norm.
In short, cultural isolation harms the overall immigration reform movement.
Black Immigrants: A Growing But Isolated Community
Take, for instance, the political predicament of the Black immigrant community.
Nearly every ten years since 1980, the numbers of legalized Black immigrants has doubled. Still, they practically remain detached from other immigrant communities as well as from many Black Americans.
According to some population estimates, there are more than three million Black immigrants in the United States. This equals about 8% of the nation’s foreign-born population.
More than half are from the Caribbean, and a large number of the rest come from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In some of our nation’s major cities, like Miami and Boston, immigrants account for more than one-quarter of the Black population.
New York City has the largest proportion of Black immigrants.
According to Sam Roberts, writing for the New York Times, about a third of black New Yorkers were born abroad, mostly in the Caribbean.
He explains, “In New York City, while many have gravitated to ethnic enclaves like Little Senegal in West Harlem or the Concourse Village section of the West Bronx, to live among fellow Ghananians, black immigrants from Africa have tended to disperse more widely across the country — to California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Virginia — than Caribbean-born blacks.”
Moreover, Black immigrants are an educationally successful immigrant group.
They have more college education and higher rates of degree attainment than any other immigrant group in the United States.
Nonetheless, they earn lower wages compared to other similarly trained immigrant or native workers and in recent years had the highest unemployment rate of any foreign-born group in the United States.
This should be a rallying cry for all Blacks living in the United States.
Instead, the educational achievement gap between African-Americans and Black immigrants, coupled with job stealing arguments, is often utilized to drive a political wedge between the two communities.
In fact, xenophobic critics of immigration reform – most of whom are racist adversaries of cultural diversity – have also been able to turn significant portions of immigrant communities against each other based on the issues of employment and education.
So long as a meaningful immigration coalition fails to materialize, such falsehoods are hard to overcome in the minds of many rank-and-file second and third generation immigrants.
African And Caribbean Immigrants: The Impact Of Divisiveness
African and Caribbean immigrants face a unique three-headed form of discrimination.
First, the plight of Black immigrants is minimized by those in the mainstream media and political circles.
Second, by and large, most immigrant reform advocates are culturally secluded and do not lend helping hands to each other. Under certain circumstances, a sense of ethnocentrism may have some redeeming merit. Immigration reform separatism is not one of them.
Third, Black immigrants are not fully supported by Black Americans. Unlike the strong support given by the Latino community to Hispanic immigrants, concerns of Black immigrants are not high priority items on many African-Americans’ political agendas.
To be sure, African and Caribbean immigrants are not the only immigrant groups to experience such general distancing from its American brethren. Nor does this insularity imply the lack of viable historical, social, and political reasons for such partitions.
The combined impact of these factors on Black immigrants is far-reaching.
In an article entitled “Thoughts On The African Voice In The Immigration Debate” an author writing under the pen name of Undocumental describes the discrimination in a deeply anguished voice:
“I have always had the idea that discussions on immigration among Black immigrant communities like my own are taboo. Black undocumented Americans (especially males) have a ‘double-stigma’. Not only do we have to deal with being Black in America, but also deal with living in a country that does not recognize and accept us.”
Adds Marybeth Onyeukwu, a Board Member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration:
“For too long, the Black struggle has been co-opted to legitimize the immigrant rights movement with little to no reciprocity. Movement leaders have consistently ignored and erased the plight of black migrants. Movement leaders have time and time again failed to offer any kind of support when black communities are under siege.”
Why A Broad Immigration Reform Coalition Is Needed
Since the debate over comprehensive reform resembles a zero-sum game, a divisive house amplifies the potential for legislation which does not serve the greater good of all immigrant communities.
Here’s an example.
From the outset of the 2012 debate over the Senate’s reform proposal, S. 744, many immigrant rights advocates have trivialized, if not overlooked, the effects of abolishing the diversity visa lottery.
The loudest political voice in opposition has been the Black immigrant community.
They grasp the loss of 55,000 visas per year for countries with low immigrant flows to the United States would reduce the already small number of immigrants from less industrialized nations – in favor of more professional immigrants from industrialized and developed countries.
The switch would mean not only less visas for poor countries vis-à-vis rich countries, but also a shift away from a family-based to an employment-based immigration system.
In short, if S. 744 had been passed, such changes would have cut off the means of legal entry for many immigrants from various third world countries – not just African and Caribbean immigrants.
The issue is not dead.
There are several in Congress who continue to push for these modifications to the current immigration system.
Many immigration activists from several cultural and ethnic communities remain relatively silent.
Others, like Irish immigrants in the United States, loudly oppose such negative proposals. But their relatively small numbers are ignored by the two political parties.
A Divided Immigration House Today, A Fragmented America Tomorrow
Being a Riverside immigration lawyer, I worry about the future of America after comprehensive reform.
I refuse to take a short term view of changes to immigration law.
In my perspective, it’s time for reform advocates to take the next steps forward. It’s time to break down the walls of immigration ethnocentrism.
The push for immigration reform cannot be deemed a movement when far too many supporters live isolated political existences on immigration policies.
To achieve success, comprehensive reform requires as many hands on deck as possible.
Seen through a different lens, if those involved in the immigration movement are not concerned with building cultural and ethnic bridges now, what does the future hold?
An immigration process perhaps more flawed than the one in place at present?
A more fragmented social, economic, and political America?
That’s not the type of immigration reform I’m fighting for.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics