May 26, 2011

Black Immigrants Join the Debate

Millions of African- and Caribbean-born people are missing from the immigration-reform conversation. A few of them tell The Root that they will not be shut out.

by Cynthia Gordon
Originally posted in the Root

On March 11, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Tolu Olubunmi came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant for the first time.

"It's been nerve-racking because it puts me at a risk," the 30-year-old told The Root about her speech supporting Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) reintroduction of the DREAM Act. The bill, which passed in the House last year but failed to clear the Senate, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths like her, brought to the United States as children. "But I think you have to focus on the individuals to get away from the politics of an issue that's so divisive. Once you know that there are real people attached to the statistics, then you have to start working on real solutions."

Olubunmi, who was born in Nigeria, is also one of 3 million black immigrants in this country. Despite moving from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America at a remarkable rate -- and despite an estimated 400,000 having undocumented status -- they are barely footnotes in an immigration-reform conversation that is usually framed as a Mexican-border issue. But in light of newer, smaller-but-growing communities, as well as recently granted protected status for Haitians in particular, black immigrants are becoming stronger voices, advocating for reform from their diverse perspectives.

Black Sojourners

According to a Population Reference Bureau report (pdf), about two-thirds of black immigrants to the U.S. are from the Caribbean and Latin America -- mostly Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad -- with families that largely began settling in the United States from the 1960s through the '80s. More recently there's been a wave of African immigrants, with more arriving between 2000 and 2005 than in the previous decade. The top three countries from that continent are Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Most black immigrants enter the United States legally, seeking education and job opportunities, either by joining immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens or by presenting student or tourist visas with an expiration date. Those who are undocumented often fall out of status by overstaying these visas.

As The Root noted in a previous article, Caribbean- and African-born blacks tend to be wealthier and more educated than other immigrants, a class difference that has kept many from joining Latinos in the immigration-reform movement. But in recent years, with more African and Caribbean people coming to the United States to flee political strife, civil violence and natural disasters, new groups are entering as refugees or asylum seekers. While only 3 percent of immigrants from Caribbean countries, mostly from Haiti, were admitted under the refugee category, nearly 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africans granted legal residence between 2000 and 2006 entered as refugees.

As these flows of people have come from countries like Somalia, Congo, Liberia and Haiti -- without the same educational resources allowing them to flourish -- many have run into trouble navigating a slow-moving and restrictive immigration system.

Who Gets In?

Although immigration from Africa and the Caribbean has grown rapidly over the past decade, having contributed to at least one-fifth of America's black population growth between 2000 and 2005 alone, there are anecdotal arguments that the process is infused with racism and works less efficiently for black people.

Sheryl Winarick, an immigration attorney in Washington, D.C., suggests that the largest hurdles for blacks in the immigration system, particularly those fleeing poverty or civil strife, usually arise from the economic situation in their countries. She explained that most visas require proof that an individual plans to return home after a temporary visit to the U.S.

"Anyone that's coming from a developing country has a harder time demonstrating their intent to just visit instead of staying permanently," she told The Root. "If you don't own a home or have a steady flow of income to go back to, then the government assumes you're more likely to want to stay here permanently and find work."

On the other hand, Phil Hutchings, an organizer with Oakland, Calif.'s Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which lobbies for immigrants' rights, believes that race is always in play. "It factors into whether you get through speedily or whether there's a lot of circumspection," he says.

"People who go against the norm of what Americans are 'supposed to look like' -- and that generally includes black people -- have more difficulty," he continues. "Also, a fair number of African immigrants are Muslim, putting them in a suspect category that makes it harder for them to come here."

An African Dreamer

For her part, Olubunmi says her challenges stemmed from a rigid policy that makes it impossible for undocumented immigrants to rectify their situation once they fall out of legal status. When she was 14, her mother brought her to Maryland from Nigeria to escape political instabilities. The plan was for her aunt, a U.S. citizen, to adopt her.

"The plan was never to be undocumented," she says, but the process hit a snag when her papers were filed late. It's a common mishap. "When you file your paperwork, officials could say that you missed a deadline by a week or two, but they don't actually respond to you for two or three years because of the backlog. People who are committed to doing the right thing get caught up, unbeknownst to them, in these basic flaws in the system. It's pretty easy to fall through the cracks."

Olubunmi graduated from high school at the top of her class and then from college, earning a chemical engineering degree. She anticipated filing her papers with a company that would hire her as an engineer, only to learn that she couldn't legally get a job. "The law says that if you're undocumented, you cannot adjust your status while living in the U.S.," she says. "I'd have to go to Nigeria to sort out the conflict; then, once I got there, it would trigger a three-to-10-year bar from returning to this country. But this is my home."

Since 2008, Olubunmi has volunteered with various advocacy organizations, working behind the scenes for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act in particular. "We're not asking for a free pass," she says, explaining that many would-be beneficiaries were brought over as babies or toddlers.

"People always say, 'Get in line.' Well, the DREAM Act creates a line," she says. "These students are saying that they will do whatever they have to, if it's going to college or serving in the military. They are just asking for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the country they love."

A Rising Haitian Voice

David Faustin, 45, says he had a smooth process coming to the United States from Haiti 22 years ago. He acquired his green card upon marrying his wife, who already had permanent residency, and became a citizen after 10 years of marriage. But as the pastor of a Washington, D.C. church with largely Haitian congregants, he has helped many of them through a far more difficult course.

When a devastating earthquake plunged the island into further despair in 2010, he was relieved by the Obama administration's decision to grant Temporary Protected Status for Haitians who had already been living in the U.S., allowing them to stay here legally and suspending deportations.

"The church brought in lawyers like Ms. Winarick to help people who were scared of applying for TPS because they were of unlawful status," he tells The Root. "They thought it was a way for immigration officials to know where they live."

This month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would extend TPS for Haitians, which was scheduled to expire in July, for another 18 months. The department also expanded it to include Haitians who came here up to one year after the 2010 earthquake. "Having protected status is helping a lot of Haitian people to not only make it here and contribute to the American economy, but also to send money to other people back home and help them survive," says Faustin.

Furthermore, it has empowered more Haitians to organize around immigration reform, partnering with immigrant-rights groups to build a powerful lobby. "In the past it was just the Hispanic community, but the Haitian community has become involved to advocate for what they would like to see happening for them," says Faustin, citing, for example, amnesty for immigrants who once had legal status but are now unable to resolve their position. "As soon as the government gave them TPS, Haitians decided to take advantage of the momentum."

Beyond the Border

Hutchings, of the 10-year-old Black Alliance, concurs that he's seen other black-immigrant organizations mobilize in recent years, including San Francisco's African Advocacy Network and Chicago's Pan African Association. "In different parts of the country, black immigrants have developed enclosed communities just to themselves," he says. "But at a certain point, a community realizes that it needs to reach out to develop allies and meet political officials. Their participation is really about people beginning to take responsibility for their own development in the United States."

Olubunmi is heartened to see more people from African and Caribbean countries speaking out. "The majority of undocumented immigrants are Latino, but it's important to recognize that there are different groups involved in this debate," she says. "I remember once watching Bush talk about creating a path for folks who 'come across the border.' Well, if a bill is written from that perspective, it wouldn't work for everybody."

Ultimately, she knows that a system that works for everyone will require action from Washington. "I'm a huge supporter of President Obama, but I am very disappointed that we haven't been able to get comprehensive immigration reform done," she says.

While she understands that Congress must act, as the president demanded in his recent immigration-policy speech, she maintains that he has executive authority to make some changes himself -- changes like stopping the deportation of undocumented "Dreamers."

Until then, Olubunmi is committed to lending her voice to the struggle, even if it now means going public with her own status. "If it will help to raise consciousness, if it will help make life easier for other people," she says with a quick, nervous laugh, "then I will lay myself at the altar."

May 17, 2011

Watch Full Episode: Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet

Originally published in PBS Black in Latin America website

In Mexico and Peru Professor Gates explores the almost unknown history of the significant numbers of black people—the two countries together received far more slaves than did the United States —brought to these countries as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, and the worlds of culture that their descendants have created in Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Costa Chica region on the Pacific, and in and around Lima, Peru. Watch full episode.

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

May 11, 2011

DWN: New Data Spotlights Influence of Private Prison Industry on Immigration Detention

Originally posted by Detention Watch Network

As the largest for-profit prison company in the country, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), prepares for its annual shareholders meeting, new data released today by the Detention Watch Network (DWN) sheds light on the growing influence of the private prison industry on the immigration detention system.

Drawn from a variety of sources, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reading Room, and the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act Database, the data reveals the companies most heavily invested in the business of immigration detention – CCA, The GEO Group Inc., and the Management and Training Corporation – and suggests increased lobbying activity over the last decade, both in terms of dollars spent and government entities targeted.

“For years, private prison firms have played a critical role in shaping public policy around immigration detention, pursuing the bottom line at the expense of basic civil rights and tax payer dollars,” said Emily Tucker, Director of Policy and Advocacy at DWN. “This data highlights deep corporate investment in the detention business, raising concerns about how the corporate profit-motive is fueling the expansion of the detention system as a whole.”

According to research by DWN, corporations have increasingly devoted resources over the last decade to lobbying for policies and programs that will increase their opportunities to do business with the government. Of the five corporations with ICE contracts for which official federal lobbying records are currently available, the total expenditure on lobbying for 1999-2009 was $20,432,000, with CCA ($18,002,000) and GEO ($2,065,000) as the top two spenders. Lobbying efforts targeted a wide range of government entities, indicating a comprehensive strategy for influencing policy and legislation.

Both CCA and GEO have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as a lack of transparency and accountability has led to multiple cases of abuse and mismanagement in their facilities, resulting in the termination of contracts in a few recent cases.

“ICE has called for sweeping changes in the immigration detention system,” said Tucker. “Yet they continue to partner with private prison firms that are part of the problem. We hope this research inspires further exploration into the relationship between prison corporations and the government at all levels. We need to reduce our dependence on detention and begin putting human rights over profits.”

For the full collection of data, visit:

The Detention Watch Network is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for humane reform so that all who come to our shores receive fair and humane treatment. For more information visit

Black in Latin America-what did we learn?

Post by Jean Damu, BAJI Steering Committee Member

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s groundbreaking documentary, Black in Latin America, concluded lat night with forays into Mexico and Peru.

In Mexico Gates visited the town of Yanga, considered by many scholars the first town in the Western Hemisphere founded and administered by free blacks. Also he briefly examined Mexico’s national ideology of “mestizaje,” that body of thought that claims Mexicans have “solar blood,” or that Mexicans are a mixed race people.

Mestizaje equates closely to Brazil’s Lusotropicalism, ideologies that while on one hand argue for racial democracy, on the other hand deny the existence of racism and serve to make blacks invisible.

What was fascinating in Gate’s journey through Mexico was his encounters with adults who had no idea they were black until traveling outside Mexico; in one woman’s case to Cuba. It was there she made the connections between her families culture and African culture.

In Mexico, Gates discovered, there are plenty of remnants of African culture but only in small pockets are actual cultural holdovers in the form of music and dance still existent.

To this degree Mestizaje has almost totally erased positive images and forms of black culture and thus Mexico is the only Latin nation that has developed a truly national culture. All others, including and especially Cuba and Brazil, have folk cultures, which is why “Africanisms” (for lack of a better term) remain so strong there.

Gates, of course, doesn’t go into any of this and its complexity is beyond this brief review-but Gates should have made stronger connections between Mestizaje inMexico and Gilberto Freyre’s Lusotropicalism in Brazil.

Finally Gates took us to Peru, a center of Black culture almost totally isolated from the rest of the hemisphere.

Gates informs us that during the era of colonization, the population of Lima, Peru’s capital, was nearly 40% black. Today large pockets of blacks are scattered throughout the mountainous nation, and usually blacks are employed in industries that historically were reserved for enslaved Africans.

Gates encountered black women who were picking cotton. “It’s very hard work, but we have to do it,” said one. How much do they make? Five dollars a week.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we were introduced to Monica Corillos, head of Lima’s Lundu organization, an organization dedicated to combating racism in Peru. Of all the personalities Gates interviewed in his four part series apart from Brazil’s aging Abdas Nascimento, Corrillos, who appears to still be in her twenties or very early thirties, was the most vociferous voice against racism encountered by Gates in Latin America.

“I think Peru is the most racist country in Latin America,” she said.

But Peru is the only Latin country that has apologized for its racist treatment of Blacks. Doesn’t that mean something?

Corrillos countered, “It’s not enough to apologize.” Policies must be implemented to give blacks access to jobs, education and material means, she said.

The encounter with Corrillos raises fundamental questions, but questions unasked by Gates, regarding race and racial identity in Latin America.

Why, for instance, has there never been in Latin America an organization similar in size and scope to the NAACP?

And finally returning to the question of questions, why do blacks in Latin America, consider themselves Latins who happen to be black, while African Americans consider themselves blacks who happen to be Americans? This question goes to the heart of the matter of racial formation in the Western Hemisphere, a question I have attempted to address in the attached article.

Gates should be congratulated for this documentary series on race. It was a courageous and highly insightful contribution to a most important gobal conversation.


Jean Damu is the former western regional representative for N’COBRA, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, and a former member of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, has traveled and written extensively in Cuba and Africa and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

May 8, 2011

AZ UPDATE: Governor Jan Brewer signs two misguided border bills

Originally posted by Border Action Network

On Thursday, April 28th, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1406 and SB1495 into law. SB1406 allows for the creation of a state-sponsored border fence, while SB1495 authorizes the Governor to establish an armed force known as the “Arizona State Guard” for any reason considered necessary.

“We are disappointed in Governor Brewer’s decision to set our state back even further,” said Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network, a human rights organization based in Arizona border and immigrant communities. “We are still reeling from the effects of SB1070 one year later, and instead of learning from that grave mistake, she continues to take Arizona down a path of costly self-destruction.”

SB1406 would construct a state-sponsored border fence using private donations and inmate labor. According to Allen, the law is prime for lawsuits from both the federal government and individuals because it not only encroaches on the federal government’s area of responsibility, but also because private citizens could sue over the use of their donations if they do not see the progress they want.

“Arizona is once again trying to take into their own hands what should be the responsibility of the federal government,” said Allen. “This self-chartered path will not only be ineffective, it will also be costly to the state and taxpayers since nothing in this law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars.”

SB1495, in the wake of murder convictions against border vigilantes Shawna Forde and Jason Bush, is another ill-advised measure, Allen continued.

“Sending ill-trained and equipped individuals to our border will only result in further unnecessary violence,” said Allen. “And again, it puts our state at risk of losing thousands, if not millions, of dollars on liability and legal costs. After all the talk about the need to balance the budget, we have these two politically motivated, ill-advised measures that our state does not need and cannot afford.”

Border Action Network monitored these two bills during the entire legislative session, along with 28 others focused on immigration and border enforcement. A total of 12 made it to the Governor’s desk while 18 of them were defeated, including the infamous bills targeting birthright citizenship and Senator Russell Pearce’s “immigration omnibus” bill. In addition to a letter from dozens of CEOs opposing such legislation, people across the state took action against all 30 of these bills in various ways, including sending a total of over 90,000 emails to state legislators.

“We will continue to monitor this type of legislation to hold our legislators and elected officials accountable for the decisions they make,” said Allen. “Especially when those decisions are costly, dangerous, and detrimental to Arizona.”

May 6, 2011

USHRN on Boycott in Georgia over HB 87 - an Arizona SB 1070 Copycat

US Human Rights Network's Ajamu Baraka discusses Georgia's HB 87 -- a draconian copycat of Arizona's SB 1070. Ajamu Baraka shares with Kali Akuno about the ensuing boycott if this bill becomes law in the state of Georgia and also explains why African-Americans should actively fight HB 87.

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration will promote and support a boycott of Georgia if HB 87 becomes law.

Re-post rom USHRN BLOG - Human rights group boycotts Georgia over immigration measure

By Jeremy Redmon

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
1:13 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A human rights organization has canceled plans to hold its biannual conference in Atlanta this year amid calls to boycott Georgia because of a tough immigration enforcement bill that the state Legislature approved last month.

The U.S. Human Rights Network, a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta, had not booked a location yet for its three-day event but was expecting more than 600 people from across the country to attend the meeting in December, said a spokeswoman for the organization.

The meeting will be relocated to another state because of Georgia’s House Bill 87, the spokeswoman said. A new location has not yet been selected. The network, meanwhile, did not have an estimate for the economic impact its conference would have had for the Atlanta area.

Critics of HB 87 are hoping the network’s decision will be the first of many boycotts to be announced as they seek to pressure Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill. A spokeswoman for Deal recently confirmed the Republican governor plans to sign HB 87 before the end of next week.

“HB 87 is another sad apartheid initiative spreading throughout the country to create fear and exploit people in compromised positions,” said Ajamu Baraka, the U.S. Human Rights Network’s executive director. “Reactionary forces in this country are attempting to turn the clock backward to the 18th century by creating these laws.”

Supporters of the legislation say illegal immigrants are burdening Georgia's schools, hospitals and jails. And they point to a recent Pew Hispanic Center estimate that says Georgia is home to more illegal immigrants than Arizona, with 425,000 living here.

Like a law Arizona enacted last year, Georgia’s measure would empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. And it would punish those who transport or harbor illegal immigrants or use fake identification to get jobs here.

The Human Rights Network, which says on its website that its purpose is to build a human rights movement in the United States, plans to continue its boycott of Georgia until HB 87 is scrapped. Among the network's founding members are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Last week, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau went on record opposing HB 87 over concerns that it could hurt the region's $10 billion tourism industry. The bureau's executive committee unanimously passed a resolution saying the measure is "unwelcoming" and could "tarnish Atlanta's reputation as one of America's most welcoming cities."

Atlanta's convention and tourism boosters are hoping Georgia won't suffer like Arizona, which lost dozens of conventions after that state enacted similar legislation last year. A spokeswoman for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau said Tuesday that no Atlanta conventions have been canceled because of HB 87.

A spokesman for Deal issued a statement last week in response to the bureau’s resolution.

“Illegal immigration costs Georgia taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, each year at the city, county and state levels,” said Brian Robinson, Deal’s spokesman. “Georgia will treat everyone in our state with respect, and we want to encourage immigrants who settle in Georgia to go through the proper legal channels. Frankly, Georgia is leading the way by requiring that employers follow existing federal law. Look for other states -- who face the same challenges and costs -- to follow Georgia's lead."
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May 5, 2011

Watch Full Episode: Brazil: A Racial Paradise?

In Brazil, Professor Gates delves behind the fa├žade of Carnival to discover how this ‘rainbow nation’ is waking up to its legacy as the world’s largest slave economy.

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

May 4, 2011

Turning the Tide! This May - no more Arizonas!

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration is happy to be part of the planning committee for the National Turning the Tide Summit in Alrington, Virginia. Critical times require collective action. On May 26 — 28th, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), together with members of the Inter-Alliance Dialogue (IAD) network and other national partners, invite you to participate in a three-day Summit to Turn the Tide from the criminalization of migrant communities to a world of dignity and respect.

Check out the new video flier about the summit to learn more about the national gathering.

Visit to sign up for action alerts & updates on the national campaign to turn the tide from hate to human dignity. No more Arizonas!