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African Immigrants In America Wait For Immigration Reform

African Immigrants In America Wait For Immigration Reform

By Saurav Sarkar

At the northwest corner of New York’s Central Park sits a traffic circle commemorating Frederick Douglass, the 19th century anti-slavery activist. Near the statue of the famed African-American stands a stone wall that intones, “Behind some craggy hill or snow covered mountain stood a doubtful freedom – half frozen – beckoning us to come and share its hospitality.”

With the unveiling of an immigration bill by members of the U.S. Congress in May, Africans immigrating to the U.S. are hoping to garner the fruits of Douglass’ doubtful freedom. Just blocks from Frederick Douglass Circle in New York’s Little Senegal, an immigrant from Guinea spoke exuberantly about the need for legalization. And for him, it was all business.

“If 11 million people don’t have papers – think about it as a businessman,” said the cashier at Timbo Dowgouba General Merchandise, referring to estimates of the population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

In regards to work permits for the undocumented, he said, “good jobs” would come.  This would also mean more visits to immigrant home countries, more money sent back in the form of remittances and more tax revenue for the U.S. government.

African immigrants like the cashier – and Africa more broadly – often fall by the wayside in U.S. media coverage of immigration reform. The immigration issue is viewed in the U.S. as one that affects primarily Latino or Asian immigrants. However, a smaller, unknown number of African immigrants are among those waiting for the U.S. Congress to decide whether or not to regularize the status of those without papers.


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Among those few in the American political system who have sought to protect the interests of African immigrants are lawmakers who are members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“The goal…is to create a 21st century immigration system,” said U.S. Congresswoman Yvette Clark.

Whether the Congressional Black Caucus will be successful in pushing Congress to be generous to African immigrants in its legislation remains to be seen. The outcome may have an enormous impact on African economies.

Migrants across the U.S. routinely send remittance money back to families and others in countries like Senegal, Nigeria, and Guinea. In many cases, only one member of a family emigrates from another country and sends funds back to support the family.

“Remittances are a huge source of income for governments across the continent” said Emira Woods, a foreign policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A recent report from World Bank and the African Development Bank states that global remittance flows to Africa were almost $40 billion per year in 2010, or 2.6 percent of gross domestic product. Only foreign direct investment exceeded remittances as an external input in African economies.

“The economic stability of many countries is largely dependent on remittances,” said Woods.

Analyst Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Policy Institute agreed that remittances are important for African economies. “Remittances provide a way for families to make investments that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to make (such as education),” she said.

However, despite the significance of remittances for African economies, the issue was likely not addressed directly in the closed-door negotiations on immigration reform prior to the unveiling of the bill.

Clark said that immigration reform has been dealt with from primarily a “domestic” perspective.

Another issue regarding immigration legislation is what future flows of immigrants from Africa to the U.S. will look like. The fate of the “Diversity Visa” program, in particular, says Sumption, may have ramifications for African sending countries.

Created in 1990, the diversity visas were granted to countries that historically were not a significant source of immigration to the U.S. Since the institution of the visas, a large number of African immigrants benefited from the program each year.

With political pressure to hold total immigration numbers down, said Sumption, “the diversity visa is one of the candidates that is … most likely to be eliminated to create more room for other types of immigration.” With the elimination of the Diversity Visa migration flow, African economies might be cut off from future remittance flows.

In Congressional negotiations, the Congressional Black Caucus has attempted to secure an extension of the “Diversity Visa” program.

“These diversity visas present a unique opportunity for under-represented populations in the U.S. In the past, a major portion of the visas have gone to the continent of Africa,” said Clark.

Clark also says that there are some in the U.S. House of Representatives that would like to see the visa gone — but that, she assured, would be a deal-breaker.

For now, the concern in New York’s African communities is more about what’s happening to them at present rather than the future migration flows from Africa.

“They should take care of people who are here first,” said Ibrahima Tounkara, a Guinean immigrant living in New York’s Bronx County West African enclave.

Whether or not that happens is now in the hands of the U.S. Congress.

African immigrants and those they support can only hope for the hospitality that Frederick Douglass prophesied over 100 years ago.