Her first memory of being in the United States is the taxi ride from the airport to her new home in Maryland. It was 2002 and Mwewa Sumbwe was 4 years old. Not long after, Sumbwe started school. Sumbwe, who is from Zambia, an English-speaking country, said she was put in ESL classes. “I think the assumption was just that I [needed them because I] was coming from a different country,” she said. “It was so weird and insulting.”
Sumbwe is one of 12,000 black Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, according to an estimate from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). And on Tuesday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would rescind the program, this community was not spared. “Black immigrants comprise just 5 percent of the overall immigrant population, but 21 percent of those deported as a result of criminal contact. [A similar disparity] holds true when we look at detention rates,” said Carl Lipscombe, deputy director of BAJI. “This is abnormally high and points to racial disparities when it comes to deportation rates and outcomes in immigration court.” According to Lipscombe, most black DACA recipients come from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, and the Dominican Republic.
It was during a class on financial planning in high school that Sumbwe first realized her status was going to impact her life. “We were doing a scenario, and my friend asked me, ‘Do you know your Social Security number?’” It was then, says Sumbwe, that she “fully understood what it meant to be undocumented.” But, she added, “you find ways to assimilate.”
Sumbwe’s parents always told her that she needed to be careful, that she couldn’t do “stupid things.” Of course, most parents tell their teenage children to stay out of trouble. But for Sumbwe, doing a “stupid thing” meant something different. It was “don’t do stupid things because you’re black, and not only are you black, but your status will be affected.”
The precarity of having undocumented status for this community is compounded by the realities of having black skin in America. “The first thing people see is that I’m black,” Sumbwe said. “There’s already that negativity,” but also, “the deeper aspect is you don’t even have documentation.” Jonathan Green, co-founder of the UndocuBlack Network, a group that brings together black undocumented immigrants, echoed Sumbwe. “The same ills that are a result of white-supremacist policies that impact black Americans are impacting us,” he said. This community is at an economic disadvantage: “African immigrants are among the most educated but have the highest unemployment rate,” he said. But that’s not all—black undocumented immigrants share the fear for their physical safety that many black citizens have: “Yes I’m worried about being deported, but I’m also a young person living in Baltimore. It doesn’t always matter that I’m an immigrant. I’m still faced with consequences of being black.”
In 2015, Green, 25, started the UndocuBlack Network after the Baltimore protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death and other high-profile police killings of black Americans. “Folks didn’t see our stories and our lives,” said Green, who was born in Panama. “It was easy to erase us.” So he sought to create a space where undocumented black immigrants could come together to support one another and organize.
Tuesday’s announcement brought with it many mixed emotions. “It’s dual,” Green said. “They are continuing to wage war on all of our communities. But there is so much resiliency and we are willing to fight—this isn’t new.” And, he says, ”people like us have been surviving through these policies.” Sumbwe agrees. “[The government] doesn’t make us human, we are human. We still exist. We are still powerful and resilient,” she said. “I’m motivated to work even harder for immigrant and human rights in general.”