At a Conference for African Immigrants, Signs of Hope

A new president’s representatives talk of immigration reform, and the response is enthusiastic

African Immigrant leaders in New York City have applauded President Joe Biden’s proposed path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States and, judging from their words and enthusiasm at a recent online conference, a new president is rekindling hope.

Speaking to more than 200 African immigrants in New York City on January  28, Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic Senator for the state of New York,  echoed Biden’s commitment to support immigrants of color, to help them achieve their dreams. “We must do more for immigrant communities who make New York City what it is,” Gillibrand said.

I was the moderator of the conference, and judging from the speeches, questions, and the turnout, it was apparent that many Africans have renewed hope under a new president. The program  was organized by Africa Center, an NGO pushing for better understanding of Africa and its diaspora, in partnership with the New York Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. It was aimed at addressing the needs of immigrant communities after four years of Donald Trump.

The Trump administration deported 260,000 immigrants in just the first year in office, according to the Immigration Policy Organization, more than those sent packing by the Obama administration in the same period. Trump’s other anti-immigration policies and rhetoric, meanwhile, created fear among those seeking home and refuge in the United States.

If it can gain the approval of Congress, the Biden administration says it will implement an immigration plan that will address mass deportation while tackling issues such as access to public health and economic inequality among immigrant communities.

The African Immigrant leaders at the conference, held online,  said a reversal of harsh restrictions and deportations will instill optimism in the community. Biden has already been reversing some of Trump’s immigration policies since he took office, such as lifting a travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries. He also ordered his cabinet to work to keep deportation protections for thousands of people brought to the U.S. as children.

Key among the issues discussed at the conference included the proposal to clear the backlog of asylum cases, legalizing undocumented immigrants, and New York City’s support to immigrant communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senator Gillibrand pledged to take the immigrants’ concerns to Capitol Hill.  “I will do everything I can to lift up your voices in Washington and fight for the changes we desperately need,” she said.

At the conference, the mayor’s office acknowledged the need to treat immigrants with dignity, and acknowledged that immigrants have experienced four years of racist rhetoric, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The Biden administration recognizes and commits not to just address the horrific policies we saw during the Trump era but to reorient our immigration system to be more humane and equitable for all immigrants.” said Bitta Mostoffi, who heads the NYC Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Mostoffi noted that many essential workers are immigrants and undocumented immigrants, and that they have kept NYC going throughout the pandemic.

Cesar Vargas,  an attorney  and Legislative Director to New York City District 38 Council Member, and Chair of the Committee on Immigration Carlos Menchaca, said that while the city has limited authority to expedite pending asylum cases, city officials will continue advocating for the legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation.

‘Those with pending cases can reach out to council members. We can connect
them with legal resources and their Congressional representatives so we can
support their case. Most importantly, we want to show them that the New York
City Council is advocating for relief of African Immigrant communities and we
are reaching out to the courts to expedite the cases of those already in court,” said
Vargas.

Amaha Khassa, the executive director of African Communities Together, appealed to the Biden administration to provide asylum seekers a guaranteed right to legal representation to present their case so they can live up to their full potential.

Some participants, like Amanda Lugg, the director of advocacy and LGBTQ Programming for the African Services Committee, said there is rising hope that immigration reform will help shift the portrayal of Africans and other immigrants as criminals.

“We will no longer be called aliens,” she said. “We will be ‘non-citizens,’ as suggested in the reform bill.”

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