Nearly 40 years ago, Micheline Charles left her native Haiti in search of a better life for her family in the United States. After six years, she secured visas and other documentation that allowed her to bring her little boy and girl to Southern Florida. Life was better but not without some struggle.
Charles worked in a factory with a diverse pool of other immigrants. She endured workplace discrimination and wage theft, but she never pursued recourse because her employer continually threatened her with deportation.
Her voice is critical in the discussions about immigration reform. There are about 3 million black immigrants who comprise approximately 9 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population. Like Charles, some of these immigrants have traveled here from poorer countries seeking opportunity; others have sought asylum. Their stories are inspiring and sometimes riddled with political turmoil, violence, even hunger. Their stories haven’t figured prominently in public discussion over immigration reform. But in reality, a diverse pool of people have a stake in the debate and are from countries and continents as varied as Mexico, Haiti, India, Somalia, West Africa, the Caribbean and multiple points in between.
Immigration reform is as much a priority for black citizens and immigrants as it is for the Latino community.
This is why on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, nearly 1,000 African Americans and black immigrants will join, The Black Immigration Network and The Black Institute (TBI) along with a dozen more organizations for a “Black Communities for Immigrant Justice Rally.” They will be joined by Latino allies as well. Participants aim to raise awareness that immigration reform affects all communities, and they will call on lawmakers to address the distinct needs of the 400,000 undocumented black immigrants in forthcoming immigration reform policy.
Black immigrants come here because of the promise of opportunity and a better life just like other immigrants. Some also arrive to escape violence, ethnic cleansing, famine or civil war in their home countries. The ugly truth is once they are here, they are more likely than other immigrants to be deported and face other social injustices.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, black immigrants in 2011 had the highest unemployment (12.5 percent) of any foreign-born group in the United States although they have more college education and attain more degrees than their immigrant counterparts. They also earn lower wages compared to similarly trained immigrant or native workers. Black immigrants have significantly higher deportation rates than Asian, Middle Eastern or white immigrants. In fact, Jamaicans, Haitians and Dominicans in New York City are the most deported group.
Former detainee turned community organizer, Donald Anthonyson, an immigrant from Antigua who has legal status, has heard too many deportation and detention stories. Since 2004, he has been working with Families for Freedom, a New York City-based defense network for families affected by deportation and detention. “It breaks my heart to hear calls day after day of family members concerned about loved ones in detention, and detainees who share horrifying stories about abuse, lack of medical attention, unclean conditions, and financial challenges that families now face because of their imprisonment,” Anthonyson said recently. Most of the immigrants he works with are black.
Comprehensive immigration reform is at the top of the public agenda. President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address and in January traveled to Las Vegas to make it clear that he wants to sign a bill this year. Although Congress has not yet introduced a bill, the merits of immigration reform continue to be debated in the nation’s newspapers, at forums and in homes across the country. In addition, polling shows voters of all races overwhelming support reform.
As organizations representing diverse black communities, SEIU and the Black Immigration Network, are united in the belief that families from all walks of life have contributed to America’s society and economy. Black immigrants, African Americans, Africans, Caribbeans and other communities of color are intimately entwined. Now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to secure justice for all immigrants and move our communities forward.
Opal Tometi is the National Coordinator for Black Immigration Network (BIN) where she works with African Americans, African, Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrant communities on issues of racial justice and immigrant rights. BIN is a national network of people and organizations serving black immigrant and African American communities focused on supporting fair and just immigration, as well as economic and social policies that benefit these communities and all communities of color and create a more just and equitable society.