Does Black Lives Matter apply to African immigrants as well?

I came to the U.S. from Burundi after being tortured. But more restrictive immigration policies are making it harder for folks like me to seek asylum.

Come Nzibarega | USAToday

The declaration that “Black Lives Matter” has been written on countless protest signs, hashtagged across social media and even painted on a street, with the words now visible from space.

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As a Black man in America, I’m encouraged that more Americans seem eager to affirm my dignity. But a series of recent immigration policy changes belie the statement that Black Lives Matter, as African individuals have been systematically excluded from entry to the U.S.

I’m one of more than 150,000 Africans in the past decade to have come lawfully to the U.S. through the refugee resettlement program. In my home country of Burundi, my work as a translator for UN peacekeepers made me a target for rebels. One night, as I returned from a run, they kidnapped me at gunpoint, tortured me and held me for two weeks before United Nations peacemakers rescued me.

But I was still not safe, and my presence put my family at risk, so I made the difficult decision to flee my homeland. I made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where I spent six wasted years before the U.S. refugee resettlement program gave me a new lease on life. I arrived in Spokane, Washington in 2012.

As recently as fiscal year 2016, more than 31,000 African refugees were resettled. But the refugee resettlement program has been decimated in recent years. Halfway through fiscal year 2020, only about 3,000 African refugees have been resettled. If resettlement continues at that pace, 90% fewer African refugees will find safety and freedom in the U.S. this year than in 2016. Meanwhile, the share of resettled refugees who come from Europe has risen from about 5% in fiscal year 2016 to about 25% this fiscal year. 

Come Nzibarega came to the U.S. after a long journey from Burundi.
Come Nzibarega came to the US after a long journey from Burundi

Africans fleeing persecution can still seek asylum in the U.S. But asylum is only an option if they can reach the U.S., which is logistically challenging unless they are first granted a temporary visa either to the U.S. or another country in the Western Hemisphere. Because few Africans are granted the temporary visa needed to board an airplane, Africans make up only a small share of asylum seekers in the U.S. 

Most African asylum seekers who do make it to an asylum hearing in front of an immigration judge ultimately win their asylum cases, meaning they have demonstrated that they reasonably fear persecution if returned to their country of origin. But that too is likely to change, if new regulations proposed by the Trump administration last month are finalized.

These regulations would radically redefine eligibility for asylum, including restricting asylum access for people who transit through more than one country to reach the U.S. Since there are few nonstop flights from the African continent to the U.S., African migrants are likely to be largely barred, despite otherwise meeting the requirements of U.S. law.Get the Opinion newsletter in your inbox.

The most recent change occurred just two weeks ago: President Donald Trump issued a proclamation that extends until at least the end of the year a ban first announced in April halting most immigrant visas issued abroad, including diversity visas. Roughly 40% of the 55,000 diversity visas available each year between fiscal years 1995 and 2016, have gone to individuals from African countries who meet strict eligibility requirements. In fact, as of 2017, sub-Saharan African immigrants were three times more likely than those from other regions to have come on a diversity visa. The law requires these visas to be issued within a given fiscal year, but fewer than one-quarter had been issued when the April ban, which was originally for 60 days, went into effect. The ban now stretches past the end of the fiscal year. Between 10,000 and 20,000 qualifying Africans who have already been told they won the lottery are now out of luck. 

The proclamation also extends a ban on most family reunification visas, blocking (with exceptions) the primary process by which Black immigrants have migrated to the U.S. in recent years. Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens are still allowed, but not those of lawful permanent residents. Adult children are banned — even those whose U.S. citizen parents filed petitions (and paid hefty fees) as long as 12 years ago

These new restrictions have been implemented under the pretext of COVID-19, but additional restrictions on immigrant visas were already placed on Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, in mid-February. Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania also were subjected to new, unduly burdensome restrictions. 

These and other policy changes have already resulted in a sharp reduction to the number of Black people allowed to immigrate to the U.S. It’s hard not to wonder if the disparate racial impact is intentional. The president himself has reportedly referred to African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries,” expressed his preference for Norwegian immigrants, and imagines that Nigerians live in “huts.” It’s implausible that these views don’t have an impact on how he crafts our nation’s exclusionary immigration policies.

Like most Black Americans, I have experienced racism in the United States. Most recently, when I moved to Richland, Washington to take a new job, multiple landlords refused to rent to me — despite good credit and adequate income. I’m thankful for the Latino property manager who finally was willing to rent me a place to live.

But I have also experienced the best of this country. From the volunteers at the mostly-white church in Spokane who welcomed me to America eight years ago, to the many who have responded to my story by advocating for refugees, I’ve come to know first-hand that Americans are capable of resisting racism and pursuing justice for immigrants. Some truly do live by the motto that “Black lives matter.”

In my role at World Relief, I now help to continue these anti-racist efforts by partnering with local churches, volunteers and employers to welcome other immigrants and help them rebuild their lives in Eastern Washington.

As a nation, America must reckon with the systemic racism that is infecting our immigration system. I hope and pray that we will not just proclaim that Black Lives Matter, but insist upon public policies that demonstrate we really believe it, too.

Come Nzibarega is an employment specialist at World Relief in Richland, Washington. 

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