Yesterday's immigration rally in Washington, D.C., and the movement behind it have been propelled largely by Latino and Asian immigrants. But often missing from the conversation about immigration reform are the roughly 3 million immigrants of African descent. And their lack of visibility means their struggles with the immigration system aren’t necessarily on Congress’ agenda. But Africans and Afro-Caribbeans in the Bay Area are part of a growing movement to influence the debate.
From his cramped office in San Francisco’s Mission District, African Advocacy Network program Director Adoubou Traore helps new arrivals from Africa find jobs, housing and, not least of all, immigration solutions. But he’s not convinced legislation from Washington will help his clients much.
“Immigration reform is mostly targeting people who are undocumented,” Traore said.
But that leaves out quite a few people, including refugees, and people with what’s called temporary protected status, or TPS, from impoverished or war-torn countries such as Haiti, Somalia and Sudan.
“The fact is that were you on the TPS, you never become an American citizen. You never become a permanent resident. You never be able to reunify your family here,” Traore said.
Then there are asylum seekers, like the man sitting across from Traore. Kevin, who because of his uncertain legal status doesn’t want to use his real name, fled civil war in his native Chad in 2009. When Kevin arrived in the United States, he was told his request for asylum would take two years to decide. Due to overburdened courts, it has now been almost four.
“The physical part or the financial part, I think everybody can mostly handle," Kevin said. “But the mental part is hard. Imagine being here almost four years. You think you are gonna get everything tomorrow, or the next time you gonna see the judge. And every time they delay.”
Kevin said he has friends who have paid up to $18,000 to attorneys to try and navigate the complex asylum process. Advocates are calling on Congress to simplify that process and provide funding to deal with the backlog of cases.
At a town hall meeting hosted by East Bay congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), Nigerian immigrant Veronica Ufoegbune, president of the Anioma Tribal Association, described how Africans are at the mercy of a confusing system.
“Africans, as you can see, are totally on the bottom of the totem. We need you to reach out and make it comprehensive," she told the congresswoman.
Lee said the Congressional Black Caucus hears the call and is working to influence political negotiations.
“We’re gonna stick together and make sure that immigrants of African descent or Caribbean descent from all over the world are included as part of this," she said.
So what would African-friendly immigration reform look like? It might include eliminating the requirement to apply for asylum within one year of arrival. Speeding up family reunification. Creating a path to citizenship for those with temporary protected status.
But Joe Guzzardi, senior writing fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization, a group that believes immigration levels are too high, said streamlining the process for asylum seekers or refugees could be a hard sell in Congress.
“Those are particularly tough issues because of the kind of history of fraud and the documented unreliability of some of the claims that are made for that status," he said.
Nunu Kidane, director of the Priority Africa Network in Oakland, said African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants are beginning to command attention. In March, a coalition of African immigrant groups organized a rally on Capitol Hill.
“It was unprecedented. Even if it had been 100 people instead of 400, I would have been very pleased," said Kidane, adding that it was the fruit of years of difficult organizing across national, ethnic and language boundaries.
“It brought into a common platform groups that did not even know they existed, let alone to work together. So, you had the Cameroonians working with the Ugandans, working with the Nigerians, and you’ve people from Belize and Afro-Latinos and African-Americans, and people from Nigeria, who actually had to sit together.”
Those groups were out again yesterday, on the lawn of the Capitol, alongside thousands of other immigrant advocates. Whether or not they’ve come together in time to influence current legislation remains to be seen.
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