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With Few Options, Undocumented Black Immigrants Face Difficult Choice

By Sam P.K. Collins

Upon immigrating to the U.S. from St. Lucia, Ronnie started an academic journey he thought would help him achieve his goals. However, more than 15 years after moving to Brooklyn, New York, with his mother and brother, Ronnie said he continues to experience firsthand the drawbacks of his precarious immigration status.

In 2011, his visa expired. When he graduated from an aviation high school several years later, instructors couldn’t determine how to help him begin pilot training without permanent residency. After acquiring his bachelor’s degree in 2019, Ronnie faced more disappointment when he had to pass up on a job on Capitol Hill.

As a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA), Ronnie, who asked only to be identified by his first name, has temporary protection against deportation but no pathway to American citizenship.

He, along with others covered by the 2012 program, has to reapply for protection nearly every two years in a process he describes as convoluted and increasingly costly. If he doesn’t complete the DACA renewal process by next year, Ronnie will have no safety net.

“We’re living in the consequences of politicians who don’t act. I’m at a place where I have to dream less,” said Ronnie, who’s currently enrolled in a graduate program at CUNY City College.

“I’m thinking about whether I would stay 15 more years with dreams of becoming documented or go to Canada where immigrants have more accessible pathways to citizenship. I’m disappointed in the trajectory the United States has taken. It’s a deeper articulation of race.”

On-the-Ground Organizing for Undocumented Black Immigrants

Over the last several months, Ronnie and several other affiliates of UndocuBlack have organized to heighten awareness about the plight of undocumented Black immigrants, a constituency that members say has been marginalized in conversation about immigration reform.

The latest juncture of Un- docuBlack’s efforts involves the Build Back Better Act. On Dec. 15, UndocuBlack and other organizations led a march through Downtown D.C. to call for the inclusion of language that paves a pathway to a green card for millions of undocumented immi- grants, including those hailing from Africa and the Caribbean.

A provision of the Build Back Better Act, currently under debate in the Senate, protects undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and provides them with healthcare access and the ability to travel home without consequence. It has been estimated to affect 7 million illegal immigrants, many of whom count as essential workers, Temporary Protected Status recipients and DREAMers.

Upon entering office, President Joe Biden (D) touted immigration reform among his administration’s top priorities. However, attempts to exercise executive power to make permanent policy changes have sparked pushback from federal judges.

In Congress, Biden’s over- haul of immigration laws hasn’t found much traction. Earlier this year, the Senate struck down his attempt to forge a path to permanent citizenship.

Meanwhile, Black migrants, specifically Haitians, continue to feel the wrath of border patrol agents and U.S. immigration agencies.

In September, photos surfaced of U.S. border patrol agents on horseback whipping Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, Texas. Though Biden condemned the officers’ actions, his administration later ushered in the depor- tation of those Haitians. Critics have since pointed to Biden’s use of Trump-era legislation that has led to a surge of border patrol agents during the pandemic.

As a cohort of undocument- ed and formerly undocumented Black immigrants, UndocuBlack Network has led several marches over years, including one in February to highlight the plight of Haitians.

“We’ve been in the streets for Black Lives Matter, the women’s march and immigration while all still fighting for Black immigrant-specific issues [and] we’re very drained. [But] the march was very rejuvenating,’ said Yoliswa Khumalo Hadebe, UndocuBlack Network’s director of narrative and media.

“The Haitians’ pain isn’t separate from [the pain] of collective Black oppression,” said Hadebe who hails from South Africa. “There are other Black migrants left behind at the border and in detention who’ve had the same experiences, which is why we’ve asked for an expansive understanding of the issue.”

An Issue Uniting Black People of Various Ethnicities

Haitians count among 4.2 million Black immigrants living in the U.S., many of whom arrive in need of asylum or as refugees. Even though Black immigrants account for nine percent of those who arrived illegally, the Black Alliance for Justice Immigration estimates that one out of five illegal immigration cases involve Black people.

Research shows that the ma- jority of foreign-born Black people come from Africa and the Caribbean and tend to have a better command of English than their counterparts from Latin America and other parts of the world. The lack of a language barrier, in part, has been identified as a reason why Black immigrants’ strife hasn’t been deemed as dire as that of Latino immigrants.

Juliette, Ronnie’s mother, called on Americans, particularly Black Americans, to better empathize with Black immigrants who enter the U.S. to improve their lives and that of their families.

Several years ago, before send- ing for Ronnie and his brother, Ronnie’s mother left St. Lucia for North Carolina, and later New York. She, too, rose through the ranks of the American education system but not without being denied a driver’s license and academic scholarships and forced to endure the prejudice of employees in the university bursar’s office.

However, Ronnie’s mother continued to press on, working 80-hour weeks and paying for her education out of pocket, all while supporting her children and family members in her native country. Two years into her graduate program, she remains confident that she can eventually acquire the tools needed to help Black immigrants facing trouble along the U.S. border.

“People look at us as coming in and taking what’s theirs but we’re doing the jobs they won’t do and we do it for less pay,” Ronnie’s mother said.

“We’re not here to cause problems. We want to get into the system and achieve the American dream. We’re being ostracized because of the color of our skin. Our Black brothers and sisters need to identify with us more and understand we’re not here to fight but to improve the system .”

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