After years of living amongst the violence of political turmoil and strife, Nancy Adossi and her family left Togo in West Africa when she was nine. They settled in Houston staying on a visitor’s visa that expired after a year.
Twenty years later, Adossi remains in Houston. The 28-year old graduate of the University of Houston is undocumented and only protected under former President Barack Obama’s 2012 administrative action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
As of September 2017, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports that there are 689,800 active DACA recipients. They came to this country as children and are exempt from being deported while also receiving permission to work (subject to renewal). Last year, Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would end the DACA program, forcing Dreamers to return to their home countries.
Adossi has worked tirelessly to receive both her masters and doctorate degrees focusing on the education of foreign medical graduates. She currently consults with immigrant organizations like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the UndocuBlack Network doing advocacy work and research on how Black immigrants are treated in America.
Her story is not all that uncommon. She is one of the many undocumented Black immigrants who are seeking a pathway to legal citizenship. As of 2016, there were 4.2 million Black immigrants living in the U.S. with 39 percent of the overall foreign-born Black population coming from Africa, according to a Pew Research Center study of U.S. Census Bureau data.
As Congress continues to work on a bipartisan deal, the Dreamers are left wondering what will happen to their American dreams after the March 5 deadline. Adossi explains what life is truly like for an undocumented young, Black woman and what’s going through her mind as she waits for the government to decide her future.
theGrio: Why did your family come to the United States?
Nancy Adossi: We left Togo because of political strife. I grew up around a lot of military action and rules. It was a tough environment to live in, so in 1997, my dad came to America, leaving my mom, my older brother and I in Africa. A few months after he left, we were attacked in our house by rebel forces. They rounded us up with the intention of killing us, but someone decided otherwise. Instead, they told us if we could make our way across the border to Ghana, we would be spared. My mom packed as much as she could. My brother was 10 and I was eight and together, we were escorted with guns to our heads to the Ghanaian border, which was about a 10-minute walk away. They told us, don’t look back and don’t come back and that’s exactly what we did.
theGrio: What happened to your family in Ghana?
Nancy Adossi: When we got to Ghana, we didn’t have anywhere to go. We didn’t know anyone there. We were basically homeless. Fortunately, we found a place to stay for a few weeks until it was announced that the government had regained control in Togo and that we could go back. Our home had been ransacked and it was no longer safe to live there. We stayed with some family members, but during this whole time, my dad couldn’t get in touch with us for a month. He thought he’d lost us after the news reached him that we were attacked. When he found out we were safe, that is when he decided that no matter what, he would never be separated from his family again.
theGrio: When did you arrive in Houston?
Nancy Adossi: It took exactly one year. I was 9-years old when we arrived in Houston. Before he left Africa, my father worked as an economist for the Bank of West Africa, but when he came here, the only job he could get was as a taxi driver. He already had a two-bedroom apartment for our family. My brother and I were enrolled in school three days after we arrived. I didn’t study English at all in Togo so it’s the strangest thing to be in school when you don’t speak the language.
theGrio: Why didn’t you renew your visa?
Nancy Adossi: We were supposed to stay for less than a year, but in December, it will be 20 years that I have lived in the U.S. without proper documentation. I used to live in fear of being deported, but now I have protection through DACA and I qualify for the DREAM Act.
In order for me to get a green card or permanent residency, I would have had to return to Togo and start the process all over again. Also, my family is known to have left the country because we didn’t want to be there. We would be going back into the same situation we left. People don’t realize that immigration is not merit based. The only way you can come and stay in America legally is either you have a place of employment or a family member sponsoring you.
theGrio: Was there any opportunity to file for asylum?
Nancy Adossi: My father tried, but his petition was rejected. One of the problems Black immigrants face is the stigma that if you are Black, you are expendable. I believe there is more recognition for those asylum victims who are from the Middle East and Eastern Europe than from African nations.
theGrio: Why do you think that is?
Nancy Adossi: If you are from the Middle East, you have lighter skin. North Africans get a lot of these asylums because they look mixed. When you are West African, there is no doubt you are Black.
Just like what President Trump said, America wants anyone who looks white. It is easier for them to assimilate into a country where being white means being the best. For example, the Diversity Visa Lottery program gives people from countries with low immigration numbers the opportunity to come to the U.S. and was originally created for Irish immigrants to come here legally. I cannot tell you how many Irish undocumented immigrants are living peacefully in America. Nobody is double-checking them. Trump said exactly what the immigration policy in America has dictated all along.
theGrio: Explain to people what being undocumented means. Do you pay taxes?
Nancy Adossi: I pay my taxes. I do not have any criminal record. Every undocumented person I know is the perfect citizen. Even when we are wronged, we are scared to scream at people in public because we don’t want any trouble. One of the best things about living in Texas is that there is in-state tuition available for undocumented immigrants. I took advantage of that and I worked hard for my undergraduate, masters and my doctorate degrees. I have had no less than four jobs since I was 17 because I never know what’s going to happen and I always have to have a backup plan.
theGrio: How are you feeling about the bipartisan meetings in Congress regarding DACA?
Nancy Adossi: I was scared when I was younger. What I feel is like my soul is tired. It has been 20 years of struggle and hearing the same old promises. Waiting on these papers for my life to start is like I’m waiting to exhale. I see myself as an American. It’s all I know. When I talk to people back in Togo, they don’t see my as Togolese. I don’t know the history of my country or even the full history of my language.
theGrio: Do you know anyone who has been deported?
Nancy Adossi: My father had a mental break in 2005. He reported himself to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials and they deported him. He lives in Togo and I haven’t seen him since the day they took him to the detention center. I always considered myself a daddy’s girl, so it has been really hard. I was 15 when he left, and I didn’t know how to process that. I support him financially and send money overseas.
theGrio: What will you do if something tragic happens to him?
I don’t know. I’m at the point in my life when I realize I need to take care of him, but I don’t know how to do that from another country. It is something that I think about just about every day.
theGrio: Have you thought about what you will do if they repeal DACA next month?
Nancy Adossi: I don’t know, but I know I will survive. I will figure out a way. I have come to see myself as a true warrior to be in a country that does not want you or your kind. To be undocumented and rejected by even African-Americans because you are still considered an “other.”
theGrio: Are you saying the African American community has rejected you?
Nancy Adossi: Every African who comes to America has probably felt this—dealing with the misconception that Africa is a jungle and Black kids would make comments about the way I smelled. When I was a teenager, it was hard for me to befriend them. I wanted to connect to people who looked like me, but they would tell me you speak like you’re white. Then, in college, I hung out with other immigrant students because I felt closer to people from other countries than to the Black community. In the work place, I’ve encountered Black Americans who say they don’t like Africans because we come here and take their jobs.
theGrio.com: What’s your response to that?
Nancy Adossi: I’ve become more assured of who I am as a woman, so when I am rejected by a Black American person, I remind them that we are both Black. Listen, I get the fact that as a Black person born in this country and trying to get ahead it is hard to see another Black person come along who seems to be doing better than you. You may think I have a better deal, but really, the white person you think is giving me a chance is really just making me the token.
theGrio: Are you at all optimistic that the lawmakers will be able to come up with a fair option?
Nancy Adossi: I have hope, I don’t know if that’s the same as optimism. Everything happens for a reason and I don’t think God would put me through all of this only to leave me with nothing. I have appreciated my life story and the 20 years that I will have spent in the US as an undocumented Black, female immigrant because it has given me so much hope in the impossible.