Black Immigrants Rights Group Dispels Misconceptions

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Black Alliance for Just Immigration -- a key player in immigrant rights advocacy and education -- inaugurated their new office in downtown Oakland, starting off the year with an open house event attended activists and community leaders.

Unlike similar organizations, BAJI's work extends beyond pushing for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. They believe in a long-term solution that brings forth information and dialogue on race, globalization and social justice among African Americans.

"No matter what legislation passes, it wont settle the issue of immigrant rights: it may or may not help us develop a social movement. We need to understand that whatever happens with immigration legislation, the struggle continues even after the battle is won or lost," said BAJI Director Gerald Lenoir.

Their focus lies on directly addressing the root of the problem: misinformation among the African-American community and a general lack of knowledge regarding the international economic policies directly linked to immigration.

The organization organizes meetings within churches, community colleges and universities, black and associated student unions with means of developing a progressive African American advocacy movement to help in fostering dialogue about U.S. immigration policy its underlying issues of underrepresentation, racism and economic inequity.

Lenoir described a notion that involves immigrants taking African Americans' jobs and even further, their social, geographic and political space.

Lenoir explained, "This is a very emotional issue for African Americans because there is a feeling in a section of our community that we've been dissed, that we have lost rights, that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement are being reversed and other people are benefitting for what we fought for."

A 2006 report conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 34 percent of African Americans feel immigrants take jobs away from American citizens, rather than take jobs Americans do not want. The study also shows that 22 percent of blacks claim that they or a family member lost or did not get a job because an employer hired an immigrant worker.

It's a belief BAJI is working towards dispelling.

While the majority of documented and undocumented immigrant populations in the U.S. are predominantly of Latino origin, there is also a significant African immigrant population in search for the same "American dream," an idea that many still struggle to define.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Research Center, there are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Of that total, approximately 78 percent or 8.7 million are from Mexico and Latin America, while 3 percent or 400,000 are from Africa, 13 percent from Asia and the remaining 6 percent from Europe and Canada.

Whether it involves the Latino, African, Asian or European immigrant community, these groups are brought together under the same legal, economic and social struggles.

Despite concerns of the African American community, the Pew Research Center study also states that blacks in the general public are more supportive than whites of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. (by 47 percent to 33 percent).

Because of the upcoming congressional elections, chances of a new immigration reform bill reaching the House and Senate floors any time soon, remain bleak. But the movement itself shows signs of revival after Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill, introduced a new bill (HR-4321) last month.

While the number of immigrant detainees is at an all-time high, immigration reform remains a generally unaddressed issue backed by a movement that seems to be simmering under the surface.

BAJI Senior Organizer, Phil Hutchings, believes the movement itself seems to be gaining momentum on its own as immigrant rights supporters who played a key role in Obama's 2008 presidential victory are beginning to demand action despite other priorities in the government's agenda.

BAJI's long-term approach to develop a core group of African Americans that would advocate immigrant rights carries enough potential to create a long-term impact.

Lenoir reiterated the importance of building coalitions with immigrant communities and organizations to promote economic and social justice: a key element in this struggle because even if an immigration reform bill were to be passed by congress and signed by President Obama, there is no certainty that the current racial tensions across the country will simply abate, he said.

"Even having won the immigration battle and gotten the green card, immigrants are still going to be in the bottom of the pecking order: the struggle doesn't end there," affirmed Hutchings.

Lenoir highlights the problem with the shortsightedness in many sections of the movement. He believes there is too much of a focus only on legislation without taking on the larger struggle for social justice.

BAJI was founded in 2006 after an anti-immigrant bill introduced in the house resulted in massive pro-immigrant demonstrations nation-wide in retaliation, giving life to what later became a Republican haltered McCain/Kennedy Immigration Reform Bill.

Three years ago, the Priority African Network, of which Lenoir is a member, joined forces with Bay Area activists, including Rev. Phillip Lawson, leader during the 1960's Civil Rights Movement and Reverend Kelvin Sauls, a South African immigrant to create BAJI.

The goal is to get us all on the same page. "We don't feel like we can win the immigrant rights movement, let alone the larger fight for social justice unless we understand the interplay of race and economics exportation in U.S. society and the world," said Lenoir.

BAJI has also been instrumental in the creation of a national initiative called the Black Immigration Network, being one of three groups that convened a meeting in Baltimore last April, where they gathered 50 African Americans and black immigrants from about 18 countries to develop a national network to share strategies, resources and increase campaign collaboration.

This effort comes in response to the lack of black immigrant leadership in the immigrant rights movement. But regardless the harsh reality of immigration reform and the difficult task that lies ahead for BAJI, Lenoir remains confident in their long-term approach.

"I'm optimistic that in the long run, we can build a movement where we can bring immigrants and African Americans together."

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