Huffpost New York
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Venkat Srinivasan Headshot

Aching for Immigration Reform

Posted: Updated:
Print

It was a quiet and dull late August evening in 2008 both inside and outside Eye Adom African restaurant in the Bronx. The kitchen was teeming with prepared food and underutilized staff. Yet, beyond all the empty tables, Efo, the Ghanaian-American owner, sat excitedly, smiling at the live telecast of the Democratic National Convention. Efo had set up a projector for the occasion.

President Barack Obama was accepting the Democratic presidential nomination then, with a rousing speech in front of over 80,000 supporters at the Invesco Field in Denver. Efo toggled between MSNBC's and CNN's broadcasts during commercial breaks to be certain he missed nothing.

His face went through cycles of worry and excitement. Slouching on the table, propping his head up with his hands, he kept staring at the restaurant entrance. "Business has been slow all day. Usually lots of regular customers come in by this time," he trailed off, before eyeing the telecast again. "Will Obama keep his word?"

Efo voted for Obama. He was convinced even before the President's Democratic nomination that Obama was going to win the elections in November. But he just wasn't sure what lay ahead for the country in the years to come.

Long after the political marathon and now in the midst of a hesitant economy and difficult health care debate, it is understandable that thousands like Efo will probably be anxious for a while.

Africans aren't quite the political swing factor in the country yet: There aren't many, and many can't vote either. But they are emblematic of the shifting dynamic in the American political arena and the influence of ethnic minorities.

African immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, root for Obama. While the economy dominates all issues, ethnic minorities continue to hope that immigration reform does not fade into oblivion either. Their confidence in his policies often mirror Obama's inspirational call for change and hope that he will be the catalyst for immigration reform.

Political restrictions in their own countries of origin sometimes play a part in that optimism. But if asked, they bluntly dismiss Obama's African roots. "It's not because he's black," insisted Obed, a Ghanaian college student living in Queens. "He has vision, he's young." These themes are likely to repeat themselves in the years to come as the nation grasps the meaning of its multi-ethnicity.

George Onuorah, a Nigerian-American who is the founder and president of a non-profit youth empowerment organization, was one of the Obama campaign's many grassroots supporters. To him, Obama's African origins were not to be misconstrued as support for Africa. He is convinced that President Obama will view the world as a diverse place.

The diverse African community -- voters, non-voters and undocumented residents alike -- was involved strongly in election volunteering for Obama despite being largely invisible to the country. "Every day I earn points on the Obama campaign," said Titi, a fashion designer from Togo, a week before Election Day last year. "I've already earned 1000 points." He wasn't eligible to vote but kept immigration issues alive in the grassroots. The economy is tied to immigration in a vicious cycle, he emphasized.

Undocumented immigrants have been routinely deported in the past years, leaving behind families without a bread-winner and therefore, marginalized.

By 1996, non-citizens with an invalid immigration status were deported as mandatory punishment. So even if judges feels an alien father needs to stay to support his U.S.-born children, they are bound by law to execute the order to deport the father. The children then essentially have to choose between a parent and an alien country. The spouse, if a citizen, may not find a job and their children may be forced to find drugs and gangs - paths with unfavorable futures in an uncertain economy, Titi says. These families become dependent on public money, in an already deflated economy.

Not surprisingly then, immigration reform is the fueling undercurrent in the community. "I think the immigrant community will always support anyone who will provide amnesty to them," said Mohammed Nurhussein, the national chairman of the United African Congress. Rep. Jose Serrano from New York's 16th District introduced the "Child Citizen Protection Act" in 2007. It stated that a judge should be allowed discretionary powers to decide whether an alien parent of a U.S. citizen child should be deported or not. The bill is currently under review by House subcommittee.

These efforts by politicians and activists reflect the growing need to assimilate immigrant populations that remain off the official census. The 2006 American Community Survey states that almost 112,000 people of African origin legally live in New York City, largely fueled by the visa lottery. But another 360,000 of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are also primarily from Africa, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report. Newer immigrant communities will be watching the Obama administration's moves closely.

Paule-Sylvie Yonke, a community organizer in New York City, emphasized that citizenship wasn't a precursor for political action, and sometimes, the lack of it only made people more active in the hope for reform. "You don't have to be a U.S. citizen to write letters and generate enthusiasm," she said. Yonke, an American of Cameroonian origin, felt that the basic ability to voice opinions freely in the U.S. counted for something for those who might be coming from countries with restrictions on freedom of speech. "It is part of human condition," she said. "When you have room to breathe, you do breathe."

The political climate in the U.S. is the antithesis of what these immigrants might see in their countries of origin. In Cameroon for instance, Paul Biya has held onto the presidency since 1982 and the government has been riddled with corruption and dictatorship charges. And those who do voice their opinions have it hard. In April 2008, Cameroon's government arrested Lapiro de Mbanga, a popular singer-songwriter, for criticizing President Biya's controversial amendments to the country's constitution.

"In Africa, the president is like king," said Mamadou Kone, who is originally from Cote d'Ivoire. "He has everything. If you talk, the next day you're dead." Much like children in families across the country then, African non-voters influenced others to cast off their political apathy. Kone was one of those who brought voters in to vote for Obama, with some hope for global change. Though Kone didn't think Obama's rise to presidency changed politics in Cote d'Ivoire, he expected it to give hope to its younger generation.

It is an optimism that people across America often cited when pressed for a reason for their vote in the previous elections. "The change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington," said Obama, in that Democratic Convention speech that Efo was watching. Delivering his victory speech in Chicago in November 2008, he was more somber, acutely aware of what lay ahead. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep," he said. "We may not get there in one year or even in one term."

Kone and others hope that the climb includes immigration issues, though it may not be foremost on Obama's mind today. Obama, on his part, has also been forced to emphasize that caution repeatedly in the months since taking office.

Hope is an infectious, sometimes blinding pill. But it is paramount to the President that Americans apply his message of hope and change. He exhorts the public to not just believe in his ability to bring change but to start digging into their own reserves. "I'm asking you to believe in yours," he often says.

As ethnic minorities watch the country resurrect itself from the economic crisis, it is a statement he would hope fellow Americans like Efo as well as thousands of hopeful immigrants don't forget.