MIAMI — Camille Williams attended a meeting on immigration reform in early May organized by the Caribbean Bar Association.
The healthcare worker arrived from Jamaica with her mother when she was 5 and lived her life undocumented until it was time to get a driver’s license and she asked her mother for her birth certificate.
“I was like, what?” Williams said. “I didn’t even understand why I couldn’t get a license.”
Today, Williams is married to a U.S. citizen but hasn’t done the paper work to apply for naturalization as yet. She knows it’s time.
“I am straight now; I just have to finish the paperwork,” she said.
Not many undocumented black immigrants are as fortunate as Williams.
Estimates show that, nationally, blacks comprise up to 3.5 million of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill last week after 30 hours of debate and it is heading to the full Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.
Many advocacy groups are hoping the tweaks they want to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 will win approval on the Senate floor.
But even if advocacy groups get their way, the measure is sure to face opposition in the Republication-controlled House.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.,whose Congressional District 24 is home to one of the largest concentrations of black and Caribbean migrants, spoke at a Congressional Update on Immigration Reform on May 13 at the Haitian Evangelical Baptist Church in North Miami. She said she is very concerned about what the bill will look like by the time it reaches the House.
About 48,000 Haitians, 56,000 Liberians, Somalis and Sudanese currently in the U.S. will benefit from the Senate bill’s Temporary Protected Status/Deferred Enforced Departure provision, according to figures released by Wilson’s office.
For people of African descent, including those from the Caribbean, the issues of concern include:
• U.S. citizen parents would be allowed to file only for married children under the age of 31.
• U.S. citizen brothers and sisters would no longer be able to petition for siblings to come to the country.
• The Diversity Visa Program, which has helped many immigrants from African nations will be abolished.
• There is also a push for a merit/point-based system that will allow those who qualify to enter, thus potentially keeping some family members out of the U.S.
An expedited pathway to citizenship for DREAMers – young people who accompanied their parents to the United States and have lived here all their lives as undocumented aliens – and those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and an elimination of longstanding backlogs are positive provisions of the immigration bill thus far, Wilson said in a statement.
“We like some parts of the bill but there are parts that we don’t like,” said Dahlia Walker-Huntington, who has gone to Washington several times to advocate for changes to the bill.
Walker-Huntington, a member of the Caribbean Bar Association, acknowledges that a series of crises which the White House currently has to deal with could derail the immigration initiative.
“The president didn’t have a good week politically,” said Walker-Huntington. “I hope people take immigration as an issue and not a political football.”
The conversation about undocumented black immigrants has been ongoing for some time but some advocates fear it has been too little, too late and that the faces behind the problem are in hiding.
At the same time, Hispanic coalitions have been carrying the torch on immigration reform so much so that Americans may tend to perceive it as a Latino issue.
“The Latino community is of course much larger than the Caribbean community and they are also far more willing to be up front and be the face of the immigration debate,” Wilson said. “Our culture tends to make us less likely to step out front. The other side of the coin is that we are not as organized as the Latino community on this and other issues.”
Marleine Bastien, an advocate on Haitian issues, is one who has stepped forward.
Bastien encourages Haitians to come out and put a face to immigration and to speak up more.
“I am on a campaign and I am not going to stop until this debate is over,” Bastien said.
Bastien wants the same for her constituents as the other groups advocating on behalf of blacks.
With the sense of urgency stronger than ever, some groups have been trying to make themselves heard now. They want people to contact their local representatives and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators pushing the immigration legislation. These advocates created talking points that rebut what are seen as negative portions of the bill and handed them out to the 50 or so people who attended the meeting on immigration reform in early March.
“Absolutely the people can affect the outcome,” said Walker-Huntington. “I am not being naive and/or failing to acknowledge that bargains and compromise does not take place behind-the-scenes but, at the end of the day, the Congress will listen to the voice of the people.