Partnership Series Explores the Experience of Black Immigrants Arriving in the U.S.

July 14, 2020 by Kate Michael
Anthony Greene, associate professor, African American Studies, The College of Charleston.

WASHINGTON – A summer series partnership between the District of Columbia’s Heurich House Museum and the Bipartisan Policy Center is exploring the immigrant experience in America. 

Last week’s discussion, the second in the series, focused specifically on immigrants’ arrivals and included details on how the process, which has changed over time, remains challenging for some groups today.

Theresa Brown, director of Immigration and Cross-Border Policy at the center, a Washington-based think tank, says that brewmaster Christian Heurich, who migrated to the United States from Germany after the Civil War, may have shared an experience that “parallels a portion” of today’s migration experience, since he came to the U.S. voluntarily, though he arrived well before the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. 

This Act set the framework for today’s legal immigration system in the U.S.

Americans encouraged relatively free and open immigration through the mid-1800s, but voluntary immigration to the U.S. really took off after the Civil War, according to Brown. Before the war, states largely regulated immigration for themselves. But in 1875, the Supreme Court decided that regulation of immigration should be a federal responsibility. A series of Acts in the late-1880s prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States, levied a head tax on immigrants, imposed quotas on countries of origin, and even excluded the entry of certain persons for personal or health reasons. 

In spite of these restrictive immigration laws, Brown says that voluntary Black immigration to the U.S. has been strong as a result of other favorable Acts, including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act’s prioritization of family visas, the Refugee Act of 1980, and the Immigration Act of 1990’s diversity visa program. In fact, the Black immigrant population has increased fivefold since 1980, and Brown says there are more than 4 million Black foreign-born immigrants in the U.S. right now. 

But despite sharing a skin color, these immigrants have very different cultural backgrounds and may have vastly different immigration experiences. 

“Somehow, if you are a Black immigrant, you’re just ‘Black in America’,” says Dr. Anthony Greene, associate professor with the African American Studies program and the Department of Sociology at the College of Charleston. “If we want to embrace diversity, we have to stop lumping people from all over the globe as being Black.” 

Added to that, “the experience of being a natural-born Black American is fundamentally different [than being a Black immigrant],” Green says. “Unfortunately, we think that because [one has] melanated skin, their experience is the same.” Greene insists that racism differs between these groups, and indeed among immigrant subcultures. 

He insists that race continues to be a factor that creates obstacles to the upward mobility of Black immigrants, even those who come to the U.S. for higher education, or as middle-class white-collar professionals looking for skilled job opportunities. “The Black experience [anywhere] has commonalities for limiting opportunities,” Greene says.

And perhaps further limiting those opportunities, recent policies have had a disproportionate influence on Black immigration to the U.S. Non-Mexican refugees attempting to enter the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexican border are getting caught up in policies intended to address Central American migration. There is also the issue of the administration’s “Muslim Ban” on 13 countries including Nigeria, and, due to COVID-19, there has been a suspension of immigrant visas, which canceled this year’s diversity visa lottery.

And even non-Black immigrants face challenges other than barriers to entry, lengthy documentation processes, and discrimination. America is one of the few countries that does not have a national integration program. While immigrants get a basic orientation and some acculturation sponsored by the State Department, this happens haphazardly. The result is an experience of inclusion that is as diverse as the populations that arrive. 

A future panel on October 14, 2020, will further describe the immigrant experience in America as it relates to immigrants’ integration.

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