Pictured above: Gerald Lenoir, the first executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
LOS ANGELES – In April 2006, millions of people took to the streets nationwide to protest a bill that sought to criminalize undocumented immigrants and anyone who assisted them. But the numbers of African Americans and African immigrants who joined the protests were very low.
For two black ministers in the Bay Area, this presented an opportunity.
That same year, Phillip Lawson, who is African American, and Kelvin Sauls, a black South African immigrant, founded the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
BAJI’s founders “believed that blacks and immigration rights activists should be working together to fight racism and support immigration reform and they wondered, ‘Where are the black voices?’” said Gerald Lenoir, the first BAJI executive director, in an interview with New America Media.
Those voices are now being heard in cities throughout the country as BAJI, some civil rights groups and organizations representing African immigrants join with immigration rights advocates. They are calling for a broader social justice movement and – more recently – speaking out on issues related to police violence in black communities.
Some leading members of this emerging coalition met last week at Engagement and Mobilization of African Immigrants, a forum hosted by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.
Tia Oso, a representative of BAJI, told the gathering that her organization is building alliances to help the undocumented. She also noted that BAJI’s current executive director – Opal Tometi, a first-generation Nigerian-American – is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, an organization that has grown in the wake of the 2014 police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Furguson, Missouri.
“The agenda is about fundamentally changing the system and we’re not going to compromise on that,” said Oso, an Arizona native and the daughter of a Nigerian.
The effect of police violence
Others on the panel – a leader of an African immigrant organization and representatives from two California-based organizations that work on immigration issues – said recent violence involving police is galvanizing support for a broader social justice movement.
The recent spate of videos showing deaths resulting from police encounters are eye-openers for much of the country, said Cathy Cha, program director for immigrant rights and integration at the San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.
“Driving while black, running while black…everyone can see it,” she said.
There is also a history of friction between police and African immigrants, said Amaha Kassa, executive director of the New York-based African Communities Together. Kassa said some encounters are well known – among them, the 1999 death of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by plainclothes officers in the Bronx.
Other incidents are not so well known, said Kassa, citing the teen son of Ghanaian immigrants, who fell to his death from a rooftop after running from police earlier this month in the Bronx. He said there was more news coverage this month when the daughter of Somali immigrants in Minnesota and the North Carolina-educated son of a Nigerian immigrant were both admitted to all eight of America’s Ivy League universities.
“We have to tell all of our stories – and not all of them are examples of the American dream,” said Kassa.
Kassa said the academic achievement of African immigrants and first-generation Africans in the U.S. ranks among the highest in the nation. However, he said they face employment discrimination when they graduate and “get the worst return on education.”
A growing population
The African immigrant population has become more active on immigration issues as that population has grown, Kassa said. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this month found that the African immigrant population grew from 570,000 in 2000 to 1.4 million in 2013, an increase of 137 percent.
Some came on work visas, others on student visas, some united with their family in the U.S. and some are undocumented. However, a sizeable portion of African immigrants are not in any of those categories. They came to the U.S. under a visa program designed to diversify the country’s immigrant population.
Recent failed immigration reform legislation in Congress called for the elimination of the “diversity visa” program. African immigrant activists are advocating for immigration policies that include an extension of the program. They also support the objectives of the broader immigration rights movement – among them, initiatives to get more states to make undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses. Currently, undocumented residents in 10 states can legally obtain licenses.
From access to a driver’s license for the undocumented, to advocating reform that would provide a “fairer” path to citizenship, the African immigrant population shares “common ground” with other immigrant communities in the U.S., said forum speaker Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center.