The Fate of New York’s Black Dreamers

With the future of DACA in flux, black Dreamers in New York face race and immigration head on.

A backpack at DACA Protest at Trump Towers. Image via Ashley Okwuosa

Nourou Gaiya was in class when he heard the news. The Lehman College sophomore saw a notification that the New York Times was live on YouTube, and suspected what the story might be. By the end of his business statistics class, his suspicion was confirmed: President Donald Trump had rescinded DACA, leaving almost 800,000 immigrants around the country, including Gaiya, unsure of their future.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an Obama-era executive order that protects undocumented immigrant youths who meet certain criteria from deportation and allows them access to employment and higher education. Gaiya, now 18, is one of New York’s 107,000 DACA eligible residents, also known as “Dreamers.” They’ll lose their right to work and attend school, and face uncertainty regarding their immigration status, if Congress doesn’t replace DACA in the next six months, when the program phases out.

“It wasn’t a good feeling, but I wasn’t surprised,” Gaiya said of Trump’s action. Since Trump took office, Gaiya said that he has been unsure about the program’s future, and ultimately his own.

Mexican immigrants, who make up almost 70 percent of DACA recipients, and were the target of Trump’s immigrant focused tirades on the campaign trail, have become synonymous with the term Dreamer. But countries like Jamaica, Nigeria, and Haiti are also top countries of origin for DACA recipients.

Gaiya belongs to the three percent of undocumented African immigrants eligible to receive DACA. He is from the West African country of Niger, and migrated to New York with his mother 12 years ago. In New York, immigrants like Gaiya make up almost 30 percent of New York’s total black population, making it the top state for black immigrants in the U.S.

Although immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean make up a small portion of Dreamers, they are part of a larger group of black immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who face their own unique set of problems.

Despite being less likely to enter the U.S. illegally, contributing to only 5.4 percent of America’s undocumented population, black undocumented immigrants are more likely to come in contact with local law enforcement, because of racial profiling. These encounters make black immigrants more vulnerable to deportation. Black immigrants also have a higher rate of unemployment despite being more likely to participate in the labor force, and Caribbean and African women who are employed earn 8.3 percent and 10.1 percent less than U.S. born non-Hispanic white women, states a report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).

“African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants face similar problems of race once they come to the United States,” notes Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies & Professor of History at Columbia University.

“They are often considered by mainstream society to be indistinguishable from African Americans and therefore are subject to same/similar racism.”

According to Ronnie James, 20, a Dreamer from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and the executive director of the New York Chapter of the UndocuBlack Network, a national organization that aims to connect and provide resources to undocumented black immigrants, this context is missing from the general conversation about immigration. James calls it the black immigrant perspective, which he refers to as a kind of double consciousness of being a black immigrant in America and experiencing racism.

“The black perspective isn’t something that’s talked about much in the immigration movement,” said James.

The Bronx is the nexus of the New York’s West African immigrant community and home to 13,000 DACA eligible residents, including Gaiya. South Bronx United, a 501c3 non-profit organization that provides legal and college prep services to immigrant youth in the south Bronx, said that of the total number of kids they serve, 40 percent are West African, and a number of them have been affected by the news regarding DACA.

“There’s a lot of concern across the board,” said Andrew So, the organization’s executive director. “Right now we’ll just wait and cross our fingers that in six months something does happen in Congress, which will be the best case scenario.”

James migrated with his mother and his older brother from the Caribbean island 11 years ago, and is studying International Relations at the City College of New York. He hopes become Secretary of State one day.

“Well, I can’t be President,” said James, when asked about his political ambitions. Unlike the role of President of the United States, Secretary of State appointees are not required to be natural born citizens, which means James political ambitions can become a reality, but only if Congress presents a path to citizenship for him and fellow Dreamers.

James still has fond memories of his birth country. The view of the ocean he took in from a balcony in Savannes Bay, St. Lucia before he headed to class is still vivid, he said. Gaiya’s memories of Niamey, Niger’s capital, are few and far between, but his memories of his first moments in New York are still fresh.

“There was so much light,” said Gaiya of his first impression of New York. “It was so bright,” he remembers.

With over two decades in the U.S between the both of them, Gaiya and James call America, Niger, and St. Lucia home, but wouldn’t want to be forced to make a choice.

“I was born there, but I grew up here,” says Gaiya. “I can’t choose. Both countries are part of my life, both are home.”