African immigrants don’t see the plight of Latinos and others as their struggle. At last week’s immigration march on Washington, tens of thousands of immigrants and activists rallied around the Capitol Building, calling for legislation that would afford legal status to the millions of illegal immigrants living and working within the United States. While official crowd estimates for such events are notoriously unreliable, the New York Times noted that “the demonstrators filled five lengthy blocks of the Washington Mall.”
Many, if not most, of the rally attendees wielded protest signs–both homemade and professionally manufactured–or wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Change takes courage” and “Illegals are humans.” Still others carried flags–American, Mexican, Brazilian, French, and almost everything in between. And while it seemed as if practically everyone had a unique way of showing their support for reform, they also had one very notable similarity: The crowd was overwhelmingly Latino, with chants of “Libertad ahora!” filling the air as frequently as “Freedom now!”
To be sure, knowing the statistics–76 percent of America’s illegal immigrants are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center–a majority Latino presence was to be expected. And according to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2005, there were only 2,815,000 foreign-born blacks in America (compared to nearly 18 million foreign-born Hispanics). But in Washington, D.C., estimated to be the home of more than 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants and their descendants, the lack of black protesters was downright odd. Ultimately, it raised an important question to consider in the days leading up to the Obama administration’s grapple with America’s immigration problems: Why don’t black immigrants have an affinity for the reform movement?
One thing we do know is that, despite their relatively small presence, black immigrants are often the most upwardly mobile ethnic group functioning in the United States today, even more than foreign-born white Americans. For instance, as journalist Clarence Page noted in 2007’s “Black immigrants: an invisible model minority,” in 2000 “43.8 percent of African immigrants had achieved a college degree, compared to 42.5 of Asian Americans, 28.9 percent for immigrants from Europe, Russia and Canada, and 23.1 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.” In 2005, a fifth of Caribbean or Latin American-born blacks in America had degrees. And according to a 2006 study by sociologists at Princeton and University of Pennsylvania, of the black students attending Ivy League colleges, 41 percent were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants.
If the statistics are to be believed, then it would seem that there’s some truth to the quip that a Jamaican immigrant offered while Page was researching his article: “I’m too busy working two jobs to worry about the white man’s racism.”
Grace Orjih is a registered nurse who immigrated to St. Louis from Nigeria in late 1969. She’s since become a naturalized citizen. In Orjih’s estimation, save for people like war refugees, black immigrants in America are generally burdened with less desperation than their Latino counterparts. Subsequently, they’re less often forced into circumstances–financial, residential, etc.–that comprehensive immigration reform would remedy. “Africans come here legally for the most part, and they come here with a goal in mind,” she says. “If you look at the Latino group, they’re in more dire straits than we are. You hear about Latino immigrants crossing the borders and dying and things. They have a lot more to gain and a lot to lose if things don’t work out the way they want.”
Orjih says she came to America mostly for the educational benefits for herself and her children, and that she still hopes to one day retire in Nigeria. “Talking to my [African immigrant] friends, moving to America is usually a stepping stone,” she says. “We are loyal to this country, but home is still home.” Orjih’s indifference toward the immigration debate has carried over to her progeny. Her son, Obi, a first-generation American, told me he has no opinion on the topic.
Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, agrees with Orjih. Though she notes that the fewest immigrants to America come from Africa, she says the ones who do tend to be “more wealthy, more educated perhaps” than Latino immigrants. She also says that African immigrants frequently arrive bearing student or H-1B visas, those given to highly skilled workers in specialized occupations like law, medicine and mathematics.
Because they stand to gain a lot less from reform, mobilizing black immigrant communities for events like last Sunday’s rally can be a daunting task. Gustavo Torres is the executive director of Casa de Maryland, an organization that helps immigrants in the D.C. metropolitan area attain health, legal and financial assistance. Torres says that, though he and his group reached out to black immigrants to participate in the march on Washington, their efforts had little impact. “Immigrants from other parts of the world repeatedly tell us that they perceive the immigrant rights movement as a Latino phenomenon,” he says, “and that creates a barrier for their involvement. African and Caribbean leaders are not engaged in the build-up in a way that will bring people out.”
Torres says Casa invited the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation to the march, and they ended up participating. But he adds that black immigrant media outlets are largely uninterested in reform events, making it nearly impossible to reach individuals in the community. “The Spanish-speaking populace can effectively utilize their media outlets for outreach, but that is significantly more difficult with African and Caribbean press,” he says. “Two years ago, we hosted a press conference targeting the African and Muslim press that took an enormous amount of effort and resulted in two coverages–both by Latino outlets that wanted to tell the story of other immigrant communities getting involved.”
Ironically, it seems as if most immigration reform proponents are focusing their outreach efforts not on foreign-born blacks, but African Americans, who increasingly are questioning the impact illegal immigration has on their community. Leading up to the march, National Urban League President Marc Morial, who spoke at the rally, told the Washington Post, “It is very important that the nation’s communities of color do not simply see themselves as groups competing for crumbs.”
As it turns out, the nation’s black immigrants don’t seem to see themselves in a competition at all.