The Black Face of Immigration
In February 2017, when I was living in Minneapolis, I was asked to give a talk on race and the gospel at my home church. I agreed to do so with deep reservations that were hard for me to articulate then. Time has allowed me to conclude that my reservations were not rooted in apathy about the racial division ripping apart the country. Rather, I was simply unsure I was the correct vessel to deliver the message. I was uncomfortable speaking on behalf of all black people in front of a predominately white congregation when I did not share the same life experiences as many of the people most personally impacted by the nightmare that visited the Twin Cities in summer of 2016.
On July 6th, 2016, Philando Castille was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, a Twin Cities suburb, on the corner of Larpenteur and Fry. For me, this wasn’t just any ordinary suburb or intersection. I had lived in Falcon Heights for eight years before moving. The school bus picked me up and dropped me off at the very intersection where Mr. Castille was shot.
I was on my honeymoon as news of his death unfolded on various platforms. After reading about it, my wife and I went to dinner and as we drove, she wept in fear for me. At that moment, it occurred to me for the first time that my general trust in law enforcement may have been irrational.
My family and I moved to the United States from Kenya when I was three years old. For the 22 years leading up to the day I gave that talk at my church, I had exclusively attended predominately white churches. Of course, it was hard not to notice being one of the few black individuals in the churches I attended, but at some point, it became normal. I was baptized Lutheran at eight-years-old and attended Lutheran churches until I started college and realized I wasn’t Lutheran. It was also around this time that I began a real relationship with the Lord.
Throughout the next four years of college, I dove face-first into my faith. I became enamored with theology and, naturally, the theologians that had the most profound impact on my spiritual development were all white. As I grew in my understanding of the Bible, however, I realized there was a disconnect between the theology preached from the pulpits of the white churches I was attending and my life experiences as a black man and an immigrant.
In his critically acclaimed book, “Lives in Limbo,” Roberto Gonzalez profiles the lives of 150 undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles who are part of the “1.5 generation.” These are young people who migrated to the United States with their parents without proper documentation (or fell out of legal immigration status) but unlike their parents, spent their formative years in the United States. Gonzalez advanced the concept of a “master status” to explain as these young people transitioned from adolescence to adulthood, their immigration status began to have an outsized impact on several aspects of their daily life. Their lack of status prevented, or made it difficult, for them to be able to drive, be gainfully employed, or attend college.
In early 2012, during my junior year of college, this became my reality. After years of pursuing pathways to legal status, my family and I were faced with a final closed door. Had it not been for President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, I would not have been able to finish my college education and be gainfully employed for four years before eventually pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology last fall.
From when President Obama introduced the DACA program in June 2012 to when it was rescinded in September 2017, I was able to live a life in which, though my immigration status was a constant irritant, it was not, functionally, a master status. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the rescission of DACA, the possibility of illegality re-assuming its place as “master status” in my life became imminent.
In February 2018, Bambadjan Bamba, an actor born in Ivory Coast who starred on the TV Show “Grey’s Anatomy,” and critically-acclaimed movies such as “Suicide Squad” and “Black Panther,” revealed that he too was a DACA recipient. His rationale for revealing his undocumented status was that he needed to use his voice “as an actor to try to humanize this issue and try to put a face and a voice to who DACA recipients really are.”
It was incredible to find out that such a prominent figure shared the same burden I carried daily. As a black undocumented person, I have felt incredibly isolated, not really knowing anyone who looked like me that was in a similar position.
We Are Among You
In reality, there are many of us. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, “There are about 600,000 black undocumented immigrants among the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.” Additionally, a report released by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) found, “More than one of every five non-citizens facing deportation on criminal grounds before the Executive Office for Immigration Review is black.” So, despite the fact that undocumented black immigrants make up less than six percent of the undocumented community, they make up approximately 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds.
My point is this: the plight of immigrants is something that black Christians should care about and even engage politically. Black immigrants are here and are among you. We go to school with you, work with you, take care of your elderly mothers and fathers, nanny your children, teach at Sunday schools, and worship God next to you. We are also fearful of being honest because some of us get the impression that our African-American brothers and sisters do not care about immigration because they have been taught to think of immigration as a Latino issue.
It has been said many times and bears repeating that black people are not a monolith. We are as diverse in experience and background as any other people group. Although my skin is black, I should never think of myself, nor should anyone assume that I or any other black person is the foremost authority on all issues black people face. I am simply advocating for this community of faith to care and advocate for an immigration reform bill that would bring long-delayed relief to hundreds of thousands of people who currently reside and have built their lives here in the United States.