Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Community Voices: The black immigrant and the 21st century black struggle

Community Voices: The black immigrant and the 21st century black struggle

Dedrick Muhammad

The term "African American" has become a catchall to describe black Americans in the United States. But it obscures the more nuanced realities of black immigration to the United States.

Black immigrants, whether they hail from Latin America, the Caribbean or the African mainland, often come to the United States to escape poor conditions and find economic opportunity. As this nation struggles with immigration reform, the black immigrant community will play a prominent role in developing a socially just immigration policy.

About eight percent of black immigrants are Afro-Latino. Many Spanish-speaking countries have massive Afro-Latino populations, including Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba. These Latinos are diverse not only in their history and background but also in their struggles, and their reasons for migrating to the United States vary. However, the majority of them make the move to seek better economic opportunities for themselves and for their families.

Afro-Caribbeans also immigrate to the United States to seek expanded opportunity. The term applies to people with African ancestry whose native countries are located in the Caribbean. The first wave of Afro-Caribbean voluntary migration to the United States began in the 1930s and has continued to this day. According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, this growth can be attributed to "the increasing economic hardship and disenchantment in the British West Indies and the simultaneous expansion of the U.S. economy with its relatively high wages and growing employment opportunities."

Finally, the rate of African immigration to the United States has steadily increased. According to figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of African immigrants to the United States more than quadrupled in recent years, from just over 100,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to more than 500,000 in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today's African migrants are increasingly interested in establishing permanent residency in the United States, a stark contrast to immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s who often intended to return home and contribute to nation-building efforts after acquiring an American education.

It is no coincidence that black immigration to the United States greatly increased after the 1960s, whether from the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa. Just as blatant racially discriminatory laws in the United States limited the progress of African Americans throughout the history of the United States, blatant racially discriminatory immigration policies limited the numbers of people of color who could legally immigrate to the United States.

The great influx of black immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century is largely attributed to the liberalizing of immigration policies that occurred during the height of the civil rights movement. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, one of the lesser-known civil rights bills from that era, ended the national origins quota system and opened the door for large-scale Asian, African and Latin American immigration.

Over the last 50 years, the children of black immigrants have become a growing part of the African American population. This can be seen in the election of the first African American president, himself the son of an African immigrant.

The diversity of the black community will continue to grow in 21st century America. As we continue to make advances against racial inequality in the United States, the connection between today's black freedom struggles will necessarily be connected to immigration and immigration policy.

Dedrick Muhammad is the senior director of the NAACP Economic Department.

In pictures: Tel Aviv's African migrants

In pictures: Tel Aviv's African migrants - In Pictures - Al Jazeera English

Fresh uncertainties face thousands seeking a better life, as Israel launches a crackdown with a view to deport them.

The Israeli government has in recent weeks started rounding up hundreds of migrants for eventual deportation. A first batch of 127 people from South Sudan (out of some 1,500) were flown home last Sunday after they had agreed to return for a free plane ticket and 1,000 euros ($1,250).

But in a hectic political climate, the Binyamin Netanyahu-led coalition government is tasked with processing some 10,000 other Africans from countries that would accept deportees under legal agreements, like Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Some migrants from these countries have already been arrested in the current sweep.

Yet the biggest challenge by far is dealing with the estimated 50,000 "infiltrators" from Eritrea (around 40,000) and Sudan (mostly from Darfur) - who cannot under international law be sent home due to the risk of persecution. Those from Sudan could face the long arm of the law for fleeing a war-torn region for Israel, an enemy state.

And the Eritreans, though their government has relations with Israel, would reportedly face jail time for having evaded military service - despite the fact that most of them are economic migrants. Some contend that they deserve political asylum for having escaped a repressive regime in Asmara.

The Israeli government is about halfway through construction of a long fence along the Egyptian border in Sinai to prevent the migrants from entering at the tail end of the Bedouin smuggling routes. With several thousand streaming in each month, the government has even suggested the possibility of another fence along the Jordanian border to keep out those who cross the Gulf of Aqaba.

The current plan is to host tens of thousands of migrants in tent cities at several detention facilities, mostly in the desert near Eilat, where many migrants enter the country and where many currently reside. The bulk of African migrants live around South Tel Aviv, in poor areas of the coastal city near the central bus station - neighbourhoods like Hatikva, Shapira and Yad Eliyahu.

Migrants typically are registered with three-month permits which do not legally allow them to work, even though most are involved through a tacit loophole in low-skilled labour - construction, food sector and domestic work.

Political opposition to the migrants has been most vocal from the Israeli right, from figures such as Eli Yishai, Danny Danon and Miri Regev, who notoriously labelled the Africans a "cancer". The threat has been framed in terms of a perceived increase in criminal acts such as rape, public health concerns and the demographic risk posed by foreigners who are not of Jewish background.

The migrants are mostly impoverished and have put a significant strain on resources in certain urban areas of Israel. But many have opened up thriving small businesses that cater largely to members of their communities - internet cafes, ethnic eateries and hair salons.

While the diverse black African immigrant population is lumped together by political rhetoric, the predominantly Christian and Tigriniya-speaking Eritreans do not always get along with the Arabic-speaking and Muslim Sudanese from Darfur. But Israel is geopolitically aligned with Darfur, since there is common cause against Khartoum.

Generally, while Israel is not interested in providing for this population in the long term, especially given rising racial tensions, there are vocal migrant advocacy groups such as Hotline for Migrant Workers and African Refugee Development Center.