Reflection on My Identity as a Black, Immigrant, DACAmented, Woman

The monarch butterfly represents the dignity and resilience of immigrants,
and the right all living beings have to move freely.

The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of U.S. politics, fueling mass protests condemning white supremacy and police brutality around the world. However in this movement, at this moment, we cannot forget our Black immigrant community. The Black immigrant experience is a unique one where many immigrants are tasked with being exemplary “model citizens” just to avoid judgment and discrimination. It is also an experience where your ability to access certain immigration benefits hinges on your ability to show good moral character. 

Black immigrants are held to an even higher standard as we have to overcome society’s expectations of us to fail, and live up to the pressure of achieving a quintessential “successful” immigrant story. Black peoples’ liberation is fundamentally and inextricably tied to both the immigrant rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. The intersectional identities of Black people is integral to combating all forms of systemic oppression. According to a report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration “…while Black immigrants make up only 7.2% of the noncitizen population in the U.S., they make up 20.3% of immigrants facing deportation before the EOIR on criminal grounds.”

In some states, the black undocumented immigrant experience is one where an encounter with a police officer who racially profiles you can not only result in incarceration, but can also result in being placed in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. Detention centers where ICE officers have committed egregious acts towards immigrants, including separating families. 

My DACA Story

I emigrated to this country from Angola, Africa when I was 6 years old. In the almost 20 years that I have lived in the U.S. I have never stepped foot outside of this country. To this day, I have no memory of my life before coming to America. While there is some tragedy in that truth, this week marks the 8th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that has changed my life and given me many opportunities. I was 18 and had just graduated high school when I first became a DACA recipient. I had no idea how much the program would impact my life or that my livelihood would depend on it. DACA has provided me with the ability to work and have economic security. I stand by my parents decision to bring me to this country. To put things into perspective, due to colonization, Angola did not gain independence until 1975 and was still experiencing a civil war when my family came to this country in 2001. Because of the turmoil caused by the civil war and the ramifications of centuries of colonization by the Western world, Angola remains impoverished. Therefore, in terms of education and healthcare, the resources I’ve received here outweigh those I would have received in Angola. 

Unfortunately this month, the Supreme Court is slated to make a decision in the Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California case. This Supreme Court decision will impact nearly 650,000 DACA recipients in the U.S. With anxieties already high as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing protests, and our current economic crisis, DACA recipients are living in a state of uncertainty. Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time I or my fellow DACA recipients have been in this predicament. 

The Legal Limbo of DACA

The DACA program was created by former President Barack Obama via executive order on June 15, 2012. This program provides me and other eligible individuals who meet certain criteria, including a background check, with deferred action from deportation and work authorization for a period of two years. 

However when the Trump Administration came into office in 2016, I, like many other immigrants and their families, began to panic. I felt the pressure from the existential fear brought on by each of the xenophobic attacks on immigrant communities under this administration. From the Muslim Ban, to public charge, to imposing restrictions on asylum seekers, to slashing refugee admissions to the U.S. in half, these policy changes have threatened to dismantle our legal immigration system in this country altogether. 

Three years ago on September 5, 2017, President Trump directed then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA program. 

“Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration
laws [DACA] was an unconstitutional exercise of
authority by the Executive Branch.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions

When DACA was rescinded, I was heartbroken and even more devastated for the 1.3 million eligible DREAMers in the U.S., who were now barred from applying for DACA. These DREAMers now face many obstacles to accessing higher education, and other essential needs such as housing and employment. 

By rescinding DACA, the Trump Administration also took away eligibility for DACA recipients to apply for Advance Parole. Advance Parole grants advanced permission for re-entry into the U.S. after traveling abroad. DACA recipients were allowed to travel outside of the U.S. in the case of family emergencies, as well as for educational programs. This means that in the case of a death of a close family relative, I and other DACA recipients would not be able to travel abroad to be with our families. The consequences for traveling abroad as a DACA recipient without Advance Parole are grave, including a 10 year bar from reentry into the U.S. for having accruing unlawful presence. Without a qualifying relative, I and other DACA recipients are bound to the borders of this country until legislation is passed by Congress. This leaves us with a sense of isolation from our families abroad and lack of understanding of our true cultures and identity. 

This administration proves that DACA is not a sustainable solution. The safety of  Dreamers and DACA recipients should not have to depend on which administration is in office. We have a broken immigration system in this country and we desperately need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. Our lives and our futures are being used as bargaining chips by both the president, as evidenced in 2018 when DACA recipients were used as leverage during negotiations with Congress to get funding for his U.S.- Mexico border wall. Nonetheless, the highly contentious program has received bipartisan support in Congress. I remain hopeful that one day the American ideals of inclusion and equality will lead to comprehensive immigration reform. Our country should be a beacon of hope for individuals around the world seeking protection and refuge. 

This Is Home 

Regardless of the fear and anxiety I feel as DACA makes its way through the courts, I continue to find solace in knowing that there are advocates and allies fighting for immigrant rights across the nation, and in my state. California is my home – it has nurtured me, raised me, educated me, but most importantly, it has supported me and the nearly 11 million immigrants that live in the state. California has been a leader in advancing laws that support it’s undocumented immigrant population. Our state is home to about 276,000 DACA recipients, the largest in the nation. While California’s laws are more lenient as a sanctuary state, other places around the country have discriminatory immigration policies.  

Terminating the DACA program would not only be detrimental to me but to the futures of all DACA recipients, many of which come from mixed status households. It would also have grave repercussions for the U.S. economy.  Immigrant and refugee communities have made massive cultural and economic contributions to this country. We are our healthcare practitioners, entrepreneurs, business owners, teachers, and engineers.

DACA by the Numbers

The Time for Solidarity is Now

While there have been incremental changes towards expanding immigrant rights in the U.S., terminating the DACA program would not only be a major setback, it would upend the lives of hundreds of thousands of hopeful immigrants. Immigrants are resilient. However the adversity and uncertainty we face in this country is detrimental to ourselves and our families. We must advocate for legislation that works to increase justice, remove barriers, and create more opportunities for our undocumented and DACAmented immigrant communities to live their lives without fear of deportation. 

We cannot ignore the intersecting nature of our lives as we all have several layers to our identities. This Immigrant Heritage Month, and every month, it is important to stand in solidarity with our Black, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ immigrant communities. This country is our home; it is where we work, raise our families, and go to school. It’s time we protect the rights and dignity of all immigrants and asylum seekers. Our humanity matters and no human being is illegal. We all deserve to feel a sense of safety and belonging as we work together to transform the American dream into a reality.

Luisa Tembo is a Program Assistant for the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) at Women’s Foundation California

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