Current Events

The Black Face of Immigration

Billy Mzenga

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.

Looming Disconnect

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.

Master Status

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.


14 thoughts on “The Black Face of Immigration

  1. Billy Mzenga

    Thomas – you make interesting points worth pondering. Thank you.

  2. Thomas W.

    Hey Billy,

    Thanks for the response. I’ll add you on twitter, but will leave one more response here as twitter is a bit confining on it’s conversational capacity.

    1. Sure. I agree that reasoning with new information is not irrational. However, irrationalism creeps in when we begin limiting the possibilities to our filter. For instance, it’s plausible that the Castille incident is indicative of law enforcement culture. However, it’s also plausible it’s not. It is a situation that is impossible to prove the underlying variables and whether or not it can be an example that fits a hypothesis of greater law enforcement. This goes for Brown, Sterling, etc in recent years.
    Likewise, the anti-immigration proponent who uses the acts of an illegal or subset of illegals to portray the whole of illegals, or worse legals, is also irrational. For that person, their fear goes up, but it does so irrationally. They’ve gone beyond that new information to drawing conclusions that dismiss other factors that are relevant. And more so, it is then being used to judge those that disagree, and have not constrained the possibilities at least. How many people agree, or how plausible isn’t enough.

    2. I was more curious as to how their theology was failing in action in your experience. I certainly think what you experienced is true to what you are saying, as many churches are that way unfortunately, nor is it limited to one color. However, I would guard that societal problems and that prioritization is okay to vary amongst churches. One church’s focus elsewhere, say foreign missions or abortion, does not mean they lack engagement on large societal issues. For me I’d personally rank ending abortion, as it has cost almost 20 million african americans their lives. But I make no devaluing of others who see racism as a whole as a greater issue to fight for them. Society is full of this though, and it creeps into how we respond to others and presume judgement.

    3. I agree with you that a nation is more complicated, but that’s entirely the point. One common denominator of interest regardless of scale is the freedom to our personal selves and property. Liberty centers on the value of that. It means the capacity to deny others to our things or ourselves. It means the capacity to say no when outside demands are requested.

    Biblically this is respected. You don’t see the apostles forcing or compelling charity on the individual. It is to the individual’s heart, between them and the Lord.

    Your nation is a big house, comprised of it’s citizens who share a set of common interests, including the liberty to do what you want with your things, so long as it does not encroach harmfully upon another.
    If we strip that away by going “borderless”, or ignoring the right of a nation to decide what comprises legal/illegal and citizen status, it’ll set us back 200 years.

    The reason birth is a default, but not limited to qualification is the same reason you have default status in your family. It comes by default with status and priveledge that others do not share, and are not less for. Especially as it’s not the only option.

    I get your point on amoral laws vs power indicative laws, but I think the way you phrased it sounds like all laws are amoral, and I don’t think that’s true. Often times we as people fall off the other end simply because some have abused the law to their power. Redlining is a great example of that.
    However, immigration laws no matter how clunky still enforce the concept that others can’t come and take from you, anymore than your neighbor can demand your property, person, or priviledge. What gets lost in the national conversation is the greater context, and quite often from both ends of the spectrum.

  3. Billy Mzenga

    Sorry for typos…

  4. Billy Mzenga

    Thomas – you make several points worthy of response.

    1 – I don’t think I meant to communicate that it was the ONLY incident that caused the general trust. I think there had been a lot going on in a lot of different parts of America that suggested that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Carrying the presumption that you may irrationally violent on your body can be a terrifying thing and that became crystal clear through the Castille incident. This doesn’t mean I cannot trust police officers. I think I was trying to communicate that in general I had always trusted them. This incident made it more difficult. It is not irrational to respond to new information. That’s called learning (please read that in the least-snarky tone as possible :)).

    2 – It is not clear to me that predominately White Churches that do not make an effort to understand and engage the large societal issues that are occurring and how they impact people of color personally (but have literally no bearing on the lives of anyone else in the church) can shepherd members of different effectively. This is, of course, not a monolithic statement. Some people of color don’t mind this at all. But in my experience many experience a disconnect. Many who engage on this website I would think agree with me.

    3 – I don’t think the “inviting someone over for dinner” example really works as an appropriate word picture. Belonging to a country is much more complicated thing than going over to someone’s house for dinner. Living, volunteering, having community, going to school, engaging in local politics, teaching, marrying in, etc., are the actions of someone that belongs to a community. These are not the actions of a dinner guest. These attributes connote belonging more than the location that you came out of your mother womb, which is the way the US determines who is automatically citizen (longer conversation). Being an immigrant does indeed mean being subject to the laws of the land you reside in. Also, laws a fungible. Laws are amoral. They do not reflect what is right or wrong. They reflect what people in power decide to do. This can have devastating consequences as well as good consequences. I think we are in agreement that the immigration system is broken so I think we can attempt to fix it in a humane way that honors those who have given so much to this country even though they do not formally belong.

    Also, someone who comes to the US for college has spent their formative years in another country. Thus, the transition back to their home country is certainly a different situation than someone who has no recollection of their “home” country.

    Hope this has been somewhat helpful. Probably not going to keep going back and forth on here. If you want to continue this convo please reach out to me via social media.


  5. Thomas W.

    “At that moment, it occurred to me for the first time that my general trust in law enforcement may have been irrational.”

    Using one instance to presume the whole is where irrationality creeps in. The officer who shot Castille is one officer. Not all law enforcement. More so, presuming his motives is where we all go wrong in irrational thinking.

    “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.”

    Can you expand this comment?

    “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.”

    I think the vast majority of citizens agree with this. The issue is and will always be the strain in which millions of illegals clog the already convoluted path for legal immigrants to obtain permanent status if they desire.

    The reality of being an immigrant is that regardless of legality, you are here at the will and pleasure, the grace and mercy of the nation. In similar fashion, when you invite someone over for dinner, they are there at your will and pleasure. They no more gain the right to dictate their stay or gain authority over you, than does any immigrant. Nor does it have anything to do with personal and human value for you to ask them to go home before, during, or after dinner.

    And the reality of being in Christ means the capability and capacity to respect the will and pleasure of others, even if and when they do so out of sinful hearts and minds. The reality is that being American or having an American education/economic opportunity doesn’t make us more or less equal than we are in Christ. And nothing here, whether you stay or not will change what the Lord has laid out for you.

    I know it’s a hard thing to face and to hear, but if your legal status ends, consideration is warranted to respect that, lest we fall into coveting on the presumption we’re owed otherwise. I had a college friend who was from India. After both a masters and a PhD he had no work, so his legal status came to an end (before DACA). He went home, he then found a job in Singapore with a company. Worked there for a couple years, and then returned to the States through a company transfer. For the record, I originally tried some political connections, and even offered to hide him in my house 🙂 To no avail. I don’t say that to judge anyone, only to show it’s possible, that it’s worthwhile even if he never was able to come back.

  6. Adam Burnam

    Thanks for sharing Billy! See you soon!

  7. Billy Mzenga

    I know He will. Thank you!

  8. Billy Mzenga

    Thank you mom! We hope for a resolution.

  9. Billy Mzenga

    Thank you so much!

  10. Seth

    Mungu Akubariki Ndugu
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Nate Y

    “..and courage to pursue the calling that* God has placed on your life.”

  12. Nate Y

    Thank you for writing this, Billy. We are so encouraged by your vulnerability, thoughtfulness, and courage to pursue the calling they God has placed on your life. Our prayers are with you!

  13. mary

    Billy, you have been candid in your observation of the status of many black immigrants in the US. My prayer is
    for Christians and other faith groups to look at your paper with an open mind and respond to your plea- to advocate for immigrants in this country whose hope now is for support and advocacy for a bipartisan reform bill to help resolve the immigration situation in this country. ,Thank you Billy

  14. Willy Mzenga

    Thank you Billy for your willingness to share the story of our family. May God’s grace continue to be with you in school and may He continue to provide for our family.

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