The Washington D.C. Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA-DC) held a Reporters’ Roundtable May 17 to discuss current immigration issues relating to youth in the United States. While immigration reform and the needs of first-generation immigrant youth often focus on Latinos, the roundtable revealed that sub-Saharan Africans tend to have the most difficulties assimilating into U.S. culture.
According to the New Americans Integration Institute, out of all immigrant groups, sub-Saharan Africans find it particularly frustrating to move into the American workforce, despite being well qualified and highly educated, largely due to cultural and racial barriers. “If you’re a nurse or a doctor, there are so many federal and state requirements that you have to fill that become very, very complicated and time-consuming, and foreign degrees in general are often less valued than U.S. degrees,” said Jeff Gross, director of the New Americans Integration Institute at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
The result, as families like the Tureys, living in Southeast D.C. find, are children whose parents have advanced degrees, but who are unable to lift them out of poverty and forced to live and work in substandard conditions. “My husband has a master’s degree in mathematics and doctorate in engineering, but because his degrees were earned in Ethiopia, there is much paperwork and red tape to get through so he drives a taxi,” Mariama Turey told the AFRO. “The money is so poor with the Uber competition and people riding bicycles that we cannot afford to live like the professional-class people that we are.” Many foreign degrees require additional training before being accepted in the U.S.
Turey’s four children, all born in the U.S., want what other U.S. children have, including cell phones and fashionable clothes. And while her husband would prefer she remain at home and not work, Turey said meeting the needs of the children and living above the poverty line require she braid hair in her spare time.
“It is not a good situation for me at all because the laws are changing and I fear I will be forced to get a license to do something we consider to be a cultural service,” Turey said. “It makes you wonder if the system is not designed to keep you poor and begging when you cannot even scratch out a living without someone wanting to tax that as well.”
But as Gross pointed out, assimilation or “Americanizing” oneself, remains the key to getting into the American professional job market. “If you don’t come to a job interview and approach it with an American attitude, an American style, and an American résumé, that credentialing document won’t do you much good,” Gross said.
Still, for those like Turey, who wanted a bit of a hustle with hair braiding, the restrictions were found to be even worse. Licensing has spread inexorably through the U.S. labor market, often due to horror stories of people being harmed by the actions of someone without the necessary training, with occupational licensure, according to Forbes magazine, damaging the upward mobility of poor people and doing little to protect the public. And while challenged in court, new cases arise almost daily.
In Tennessee, for instance, Pritchard v. Board of Cosmetology, the plaintiff Tammy Pritchard, was told she had to earn 300 hours of classroom instruction in order to wash hair in an African braiding salon. “These laws represent a hostile, anti-immigration work policy that makes it futile for hardworking citizens to gain full access to the American dream,” George Washington University foreign policy grad student, John Marshall told the AFRO. “When you acknowledge that in the 1950s roughly 5 percent of workers needed permission from federal, state, or local authorities to practice their occupation, these expensive licenses do a lot to keep Africans from earning money.”
African immigrants from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya account for nearly half of the foreign-born African population in the U.S in 2013 and overwhelmingly settle in the South (38 percent) or the Northeast (27 percent) most often in New York, Maryland, D.C., and New Jersey.