The pendulum swing of the campaign debate on immigration issues has largely centered on either denouncing undocumented Latino immigrants or getting their eligible family members to take to the polls on Election Day. It seems unsurprising that the conversation heavily focuses on Latinos — after all, 59 percent of the 11.3 million undocumented population are from Mexico.
But there are also 400,000 undocumented black immigrants living in the United States who have largely been left out of the debate over immigration reform. These immigrants make up just a small fraction of the more than three million black immigrants who come mostly from the Caribbean or Northern and sub-Saharan Africa.
CREDIT: Mambwe Sumbwe
Leaving Zambia at the age of four, Mwewa Sumbwe, now 19, has since been unable to return because she lacks the proper legal documentation. The first person outside her family to know about her undocumented status was her high school counselor who guided her through the college application process.
“The opportunities are slightly harder [for black immigrants],” Sumbwe, now a sophomore majoring in public health at an university in Maryland, told ThinkProgress. “My biggest hurdle was scholarships. When I was applying, I didn’t find any scholarships for black students that didn’t require you to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.”
There is already a dearth of scholarships available for Sumbwe and other people like her, with many current scholarships geared towards undocumented Latino immigrants or people living in specific cities.
Sumbwe has found it difficult to come out about her immigration status to her African American friends without recent ties to the immigration experience. That disconnect to African Americans is shared by some African immigrants who say that a shared complexion is not akin to a shared culture.
“It was so hard for me because all my personal friends are blacks or children of black immigrants,” Sumbwe explained. “Once they [brought up my immigration status], it was like ‘it was so shameful,’ like you did something wrong. If I can’t really share who I am, then we’re not truly friends.”
“I find it much harder to interact with black Americans because they’re already anti-African,” Sumbwe continued. “On top of that, they’re like, ‘you’re illegally here.’ There’s a huge disconnect. Being undocumented makes it more of a lonely experience.”
That’s why Sumbwe is hoping to start a new dialogue on her campus that could “empower and change the conversation” around black immigrants and other immigration issues. That program — an extension to Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas’ campaign called Define American — aims to “show what America is and that without immigrants, America wouldn’t be what it is today,” she said.
“It changes the face and shows that it’s not just a Latino problem,” she concluded.
What Sumbwe is proposing to do on her campus is part of a growing movement by undocumented black immigrants to be recognized as a part of the undocumented narrative. Jonathan Jayes-Green, an undocumented Afro-Latino immigrant from Panama, is the co-creator of the UndocuBlack Network, which convened for the first time in January in Miami, Florida.
That convention, which attracted more than 65 individuals from across the country, arose after Jayes-Green grew frustrated when Baltimore police allegedly used unnecessary force against 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man, during his arrest. Gray later died with injuries to his spinal cord.
“It was a very difficult time for all of us and very difficult to process and to feel the pain that my black brothers and sisters were feeling,” Jayes-Green told ThinkProgress. “It was difficult to see the images of black people being killed by the hands of police, but even harder to deal with all that, while witnessing parts of the immigrant community [being devalued].”
Still, the convention allowed Jayes-Green and other undocumented immigrants to talk freely about issues that they felt really impacted them specifically. They also formed two strong calls for action: to work on “blackifying the immigrant experience, whether it’s to tell our stories in the media” and to also find ways to fill in the gaps for the lack of resources in the undocumented black immigrant space, such as accessing housing and mental health resources.
“Our stories of black undocumented immigrants are not being told from either side,” Jayes-Green continued. “When we’re talking about black lives, we’re not talking about the difficulties that the undocumented [black] people have to bring to the conversation. When we’re talking about immigrant stories, we’re generally not highlighting and uplifting the black struggles and how that intersectionality affects our identities and experiences.”
Jayes-Green also hoped that the convention would renew the conversation around the disproportionate response that undocumented black immigrants receive in the criminal justice space. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), black immigrants are “detained and deported at five times the rate of their presence in the undocumented immigrant community.”
“The criminal justice system and the immigration system compound in targeting our communities and this is all happening silently,” Jayes-Green said. “Traveling while undocumented is dangerous. Traveling while black is also dangerous. But to have these two is even worse.”