Let’s make no mistake about it: as the years pass, America is becoming a “browner” nation. With the present discourse over immigration reform, we have an extraordinary opportunity to mix our understanding and appreciation for race, culture and language with public policy.
We, the people of America, have been wrestling with our self identity, and will continue to do so in the near future. With Black History Month imminently upon us, we can not only celebrate our history, heritage and culture, but we can also insert ourselves in a critical national debate on how to fix our broken immigration system.
Likewise, this immigration debate provides the black community an opportunity to learn more about the stories and challenges of black immigrants who increasingly populate our states as asylees, refugees, legal immigrants, and undocumented persons. The growing numbers of these black immigrants and their offspring have huge implications for the demographic makeup of black social and economic institutions, workplaces, places of worship, and ultimately personal relationships.
In recent years, the immigration debate has been centered around border security and subsequently, the media’s “Hispanicizing” the conversation into a narrow focus. On the contrary, our American humanity is much more diverse than meets the naked eye of the headlines, or the naked ear of cable talk shows.
The black community has much at stake in the immigration debate, due to the broader implications for our economy. Black immigrants can be seen and heard at all levels of society. They are our college professors. The nurse in the ER. The janitor in your favorite hotel. The laborer on the construction site. The security guard in your building. The taxi driver taking you to your next appointment. The medical doctor at the local clinic. The small business owner at the local corner grocery store. They are at the ground level and heart of America.
The movement of black people to America for centuries — voluntarily and involuntarily — places us directly in the middle of the changing DNA of the U.S. With this mind, national civil rights and advocacy organizations, such as the NAACP, Urban League, National Bar Association, and others would be advised not to take a passive role in this conversation. Rather, they should seek greater collaboration with other national immigration reform advocacy and civil rights groups. Likewise, the Congressional Black Caucus must be cognizant of the ever-changing dynamics of this issue on the national political scene and the impact on some of their constituents.
In this regard, we must ensure that any legislation drafted must include a pathway to an opportunity for residency and subsequently earned citizenship for undocumented members of our community, reduced backlogs for family reunification, an enforceable and respectful border policy, provision of opportunities for skilled labor in our recovering economy, and the safety and security of all in the enforcement of our redefined immigration laws.
At first glance or thought, African-Americans may not inherently see themselves the product of immigration. The truth is, we are. Let’s not forget the roles and heritage of some of our historical figures in American history, such as Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, Rev. Theodore Gibson, Claude McKay, and Stokely Carmichael — all of whom were immigrants from the Caribbean. We must also remember that we cannot confront future political and legislative fights on our own without demonstrating solidarity with others who fight for equality, respect, and recognition as part of the American fabric.
As President Obama implored in his inaugural address, “when times change, we must change with it.” Black America is quietly changing with people from Jamaica, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and others joining the fabric of our community. Our dinner palates and avenues of communication are also transforming how we learn more about each other and how we reconnect with our common heritage in the melanin in our skin. The acclimation of this New Black America is just as important as that of the Hispanic/Latino community and other immigrant groups.
Immigration reform is not solely a Latino issue. It is an American issue. We must ensure that we write the chapter for the black immigrant, or at least play a role in writing the script. Let’s not simply “watch the ships sail in” and forget that those same ships brought us to America at different times in our history.
Marlon A. Hill is an attorney with the law firm of delancyhill, PA and civic commentator on WZAB 880AM, Caribbean Riddims, D’ People’s Politics, Saturdays, 4pm