New Africans in Old America

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Injustice for All The Rise of the U.S. Immigration Policing Regime
By Nunu Kidane

Somali women from Santa Clara County participate in Priority Africa Network’s activities during the 2010 Census.

Following New York, California has the highest number of immigrants from Africa. Estimated conservatively at 145,453 (American Community Survey 2006-08), the African immigrant community is one of the most undercounted.

PAN’s (Priority Africa Network) recent mobilization activities for the 2010 Census exposed the complexities involved in counting African community members that are unlike any other. African immigrants organize themselves largely along their national or ethnic identities (as opposed to the assumed continental ‘African’) and therefore remain in clusters of small groups, fragmented and excluded from traditional mainstream institutions.

PAN estimates that the actual size of the African community is at least three times this number. After Los Angeles, the Bay Area in particular is home to a high number of African immigrants. A recent study had an estimate of African immigrants in the Bay Area at 2% of the population; no doubt this figure will increase significantly over the coming years.

Climate of fear and “triple jeopardy”
For the growing population of immigrants from Africa, the recent anti-immigrant raids and attacks have had unexpected impacts, both direct and indirect. Whether or not directly targeted by enforcement agencies, the climate of fear has permeated every association without exception. Prevailing assumptions about African immigrants is that they largely “blend” into existing African American communities and, on the basis of skin color at least, are less likely to be targeted by immigration law enforcement. This is considered, ironically, as one of the few instances where there’s a positive factor on being Black in America.

The facts, however, are that African immigrants face the double threat of being Black and immigrant. They are twice as likely to be racially profiled, first on the basis of their skin color and additionally on their status as immigrants. Then, an added factor of “triple jeopardy” comes into play for the large numbers of African immigrants who are also Muslim.

Like other immigrant groups, a significant number of new Africans are undocumented, waiting to “sort out” their papers or are in dubious stages of adjusting their immigration status. The added risk of being “found out” means individuals are less likely to speak out to report abuses or rights violations, seek help from the police or go to hospitals when they need medical help.

The recent immigration raids in homes and workplaces largely exposed in the Spanishspeaking and other Latin American-origin communities, set off a wave of fear in the African immigrant community. Less known and less visible, the sense of fear that reverberated across African immigrant communities left them with no access to information or resources.

Consequently, new Africans whose status may be questionable are less likely to be engaged in civic activism or join in community organizing for fear of “not returning home.” Individuals have expressed being paralyzed with the fear of being picked up by ICE while out on a casual errand, and separated from their children or families.

Racial and Religious Profiling
Still, the most common experience of negative encounters with police is of African men who report being constantly stopped for “driving while Black.” Incidents of being stopped (usually for no reason or weak reasons) have been mentioned on more occasions than can be counted. Many are professionals who work in corporate offices and commute long distances and are likely to experience this multiple times. This fits the standard practice of racial profiling commonly experienced by African American men. The new African immigrant, however, does not have the advantage of contextualizing the experience in the history of race and racism in this country. Many express a sense of feeling targeted, frustrated and at odds with what they consider to be violations of principles of fairness, which they expect from this country.

Additionally, once police stop and question them, their foreign accents identify them as immigrants, leaving them vulnerable to detention if they are unable to prove their “legal” status. Other shared stories include Somali women in the Santa Clara County, where the largest concentration of Somali communities resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Highly visible in their traditional veils, the women express a sense of fear in the way they are regarded daily. They are asked to present documents of their status when registering their children at schools or receiving treatments in hospital/clinic.

Men and women from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, Mali and others whose names are common identifiers of their Muslim faiths (like Ali, Salima, Mohammed, etc.) are often stopped and searched when taking flights across the country. Many say they are most afraid of ‘mistaken identity’ or suspected to be “terrorists” and added to the no-fly list, detained or even deported.

Strengthen Ties between Immigrant and Racial Justice
New African communities are at the intersection of race and immigration and are neither targeted by the immigrant rights movement nor aligned with racial justice organizations. This ‘in-between’ category makes the new African diaspora particularly vulnerable, given nationally increasing sentiments of racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric across the country. To address concerns expressed across diverse African immigrant groups, Priority Africa
Network provides resources and builds leadership capacity on immigration and racial justice issues through writings and ongoing gatherings. PAN believes that as they continue to grow in numbers, the African community must:

•    Collaborate with cross-cultural, cross-identity community groups;
•    Join immigrant rights mobilizations to make their communities more visible and more protected; and
•    Become part of Black institutions that provide information and history on racialjustice.

Through these initial steps, African immigrant communities can change their status from
small, fragmented formations without access to basic information or community protection
to strong, thriving communities organizing for justice.

Nunu Kidane is the coordinator for Priority Africa Network (PAN), an Africa-promoting/African immigrant community mobilizing grassroots organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area.