Immigration And The African Diaspora

Dr. Halifu Osumare

With the Trump administration’s hardline and heartless immigration policies — starting with the 2017 rescinding of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) for young immigrants already in the U.S. and continuing with the 2018 family separation policy under his so-called “zero-tolerance” approach at the U.S.-Mexico border — the focus has been on brown people escaping poverty, gang violence, and state terror in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. But there are also tens of thousands of African, Caribbean, and African diasporans entering the country by plane that are also trapped in the morass of Trumpian hardline immigration policies.

I explored the more publicized Latino immigration issue in a previous blog “‘Blackifying’ the Immigration Issue: DACA and the Black Community.” (https://www.hosumare.com/blackifying-the-immigration-issue-daca-and-the-black-community). However, more attention needs to be paid to Black immigration and problems that African descendants face with the racist U.S. immigration policies.

Three organizations lead the charge to help Black immigrants in the fight against unfair U.S. immigration policies. The Undocublack Network (http://undocublack.org) was organized in 2016 to fight for immigrant rights and racial justice for Black undocumented individuals. Then there is BAJI (Black Alliance for Just Immigration) that exists to counteract the racial profiling that leads to disproportionate rates of immigration detention and deportation among Black people.

With offices in four major Black metropolitan areas — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Los Angeles — the BAJI website (https://baji.org) says, “Black immigrants have the highest unemployment rates and earn the lowest wages, even though they are among the most educated.”

Lastly, there is African Communities Together (ACT) that focuses specifically on Continental African immigrants who are victims of U.S. Immigration laws. Their website (http://www.africans.us) reveals that Africans “are as diverse as the African continent from which they come,” and “are at the heart of this organization.” One of their programs focuses on protecting the status for holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from Somalia, Sudan, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan.

The Undocublack Network is leading the 2019 efforts to keep Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) status for Liberians, who were given Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1990 during the 14-year civil war in that country.

Most Liberians in the U.S. have been here since the initiation of TPS. Many came as young children, the same as many Mexican and Latino/a DREAMERS, and haven’t been home in 30 years.

The Trump administration’s hardline and bigoted immigration policy declared an end to DED for Liberians, leaving thousands of them facing deportation as of March 31, 2019. After the Liberian civil war and the devastating Ebola virus epidemic, Liberia as country is dealing with extreme poverty and a challenged health care system, with very limited employment opportunities. Therefore, there is not the infrastructure in Liberia to deal with thousands of Liberians being deported back to their country.

As a result, a massive online campaign was initiated to get the Trump administration to extend DED by some of the aforementioned Black immigration organizations. Even the American progressive public policy advocacy group MoveOn has joined the Black immigration advocacy groups with an online campaign to promote congressional Bill H.R.6 to ensure extension of the status of Liberians.

UndocuBlack Network and African Communities Together filed a lawsuit with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights against the Trump Administration for terminating DED. Yatta Kiazolu, a Liberian DED holder and a UCLA Ph.D. candidate, testified before the House Judiciary Committee, stating, “Considering the ways our lives have been tossed into upheaval, this lawsuit is a step toward restoring our humanity.” 

David Korma, another Liberian DED holder, testified to the personal toll of ending DED: “I worry everyday about my life. What am I going to do? I have been in America 19 years. I joined this lawsuit for my six children; they are my family. Our dreams and hopes are here.” UndocuBlack Network summarizes the situation this way: “The lawsuit will demonstrate that the President’s termination of DED is racist, cruel and destructive to Liberians, their families, and communities.”

These online, legal, and congressional efforts paid off, because on April 1 DED was extended for one year. Liberians’ advocacy efforts, in the face of losing their protected status, received support from several U.S. law makers, including Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Hennepin County, Minnesota, home to Minneapolis, has the greatest number of Liberians — an estimated 8,285, with 35,000 Liberians living in the entire state.

Working in favor of Liberians living in the U.S., American international interests in Africa played an important part in the Trump administration’s decision to extend DED. The U.S. government’s official decision stated that, “The overall situation in West Africa remains concerning, the extension decision said, and Liberia is an important regional partner for the Unit4ed States. Reintegration of the DED beneficiaries into Liberian civil and political life will be a complex task. And an unsuccessful transition could strain U.S.-Liberian relations and undermine Liberia’s post-civil war strides toward democracy and political stability.”

In general, Black immigration organizations are becoming more politically savvy and reaching out to their constituency and connecting them to sympathetic congressional leaders.

On February 23, BAJI hosted a “story circle” in New York City where Black community members shared the realities of migration, rituals, tradition, and race, as part of the African diaspora living in that city, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the circle.

During the “story circle,” community members shared their personal narratives, and the resulting stories were documented and transcribed into zines that will be featured in a traveling newsstand.

The African diaspora community is utilizing all resources at their disposal to spread their immigration messages in the era of increased bigoted U.S. immigration policy.

Black Caribbean immigrants are also under fire in this immigration maelstrom. Philadelphia, as sanctuary city, is becoming home to immigrants trying to avoid deportation.

One story that has emerged in that city is that of Clive and Oneita Thompson and family, who fled Jamaica to escape threats from gangs after Oneita’s brother was killed.

They first moved to South New Jersey where they lived for 14 years. But in September 2018 their visas expired, and in January 2019 they had to flee to First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia’s Germantown.

Undocublack revealed that for years the entire Thompson family had frequently checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and filed a series of stays of removal. But those legal briefs ran out on August 31, 2018. The Thompsons then contacted the New Sanctuary Coalition in Pennsylvania, leaving their New Jersey home, their jobs, and their community to move to Philadelphia with their two U.S. citizen children, Christine and Timothy. They then started online advocacy with a petition of support and fundraising campaign.

Undocublack makes it clear that in the current immigration climate, it is much easier to enter a sanctuary for asylum than to exit one, and the Thompson family continues to hold up in Philadelphia’s United Method Church.

The immigration issue regarding the African diaspora can crop up in places where one would least expect it, and such was the case with ICE’s jailing of well-known Atlanta rapper 21 Savage.

Most people did not know that She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, popularly known as 21 Savage, was actually born in London in 1992 to British born parents of Dominican and Haitian descent. After his mother and father divorced, he moved with his mother to Atlanta at age seven.

This is again a story of a young child being brought to the U.S. and growing up as an American. But, in this case the child became a celebrated rapper-songwriter-producer, with his second album “I Am > I Was” spending two weeks atop the Billboard Album chart.

But a week before he was scheduled to perform on the 61st Grammys Award he was arrested by ICE for being a citizen of the United Kingdom who entered the U.S. in 2005 and unlawfully overstayed his visa that had expired a year later.

According to music critic Jon Caramanica in a February 27 New York Times article, “His attorneys — Dina La Polt, his general counsel, and Charles Kuck, his immigration attorney — proposed that there might have been political motivations at play.” In fact, they say his arrest was based on lyrics denouncing the inhumane family separations at the Mexican border.

In his extended version of his 2018 track “A Lot” he raps, “Went through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border/Flint still need water, niggahs was innocent, couldn’t get lawyers.” And, what’s more he performed “A Lot” on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in late January, and on February 3 ICE arrested him. Hence, it becomes obvious as an artist his freedom of speech was violated, with his detainment politically motivated due to the Trump administration’s tendency to take revenge on anyone with a big platform who denounces his racist and inhumane immigration policies.

Although he was released on February 13 on a $100,000 bond, during his detention a significant number of activist organizations galvanized around the #Free21Savage coalition.

Subsequently, there is a Stop the Deportation of the She’Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph movement created by Black Lives Matter movement Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors. She stated in a memo to ICE Field Office Director Sean Gallagher, “The U.S.’s violent history of criminalizing Blackness intersects with its deadly legacy of detaining and deporting Black and Brown immigrants. This needs to stop today!” She also stated an important statistic: 4.2 million Black immigrants live in the U.S., with 619,000 undocumented.

The immigration case of a celebrity like 21 Savage helps to galvanize Black politicians, as well as the online activist community to take a stand on these unfair U.S. immigration policies and procedures.

The Congressional Black Caucus got involved in the 21 Savage case by writing a letter to the ICE director, while BAJI and its partners created a huge petition campaign. All of these efforts not only helped 21 Savage but created a tighter coalition between Black immigration organizations and Black politicians to oppose the racist, no-tolerance immigration policy of the Trump Administration.

Hopefully these coalitions will bring more attention to Black immigration in these times when past immigration gains, including legitimate asylum claims, are being reversed.

America is a nation of immigrants, and although Africans were the original “unwilling immigrants” through the slave trade, contemporary and African and African diaspora immigrants today are caught in a racist immigration morass in the era of Trump.


By Dr. Halifu Osumare | Special to the OBSERVER

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Halifu Osumare is Professor Emerita in the Department of African American and African Studies (AAS) at University of California, Davis, and was the Director of AAS from 2011-2014. She has been a dancer, choreographer, arts administrator, and scholar of black popular culture for over forty years. With a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and an MA in Dance Ethnology from S.F. State University, she is also a protégé of the late renowned dancer-anthropologis t Katherine Dunham and a Certified Instructor of Dunham Dance Technique.

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