By: Allison Keyes
In this 22 May 2006 file photo, Jeneba Kanu, originally from Sierra Leone, holds a US flag while waiting to become a US citizen, during a naturalization ceremony at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.
Valerie Gabriel, a Liberian who’s been in the U.S. since 1991, was not among the throngs of people dancing and singing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Monday. She couldn’t join in the demonstrations in favor of President Barack Obama’s plan to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and provide them with work permits. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to. The 38-year-old mother supports the president’s executive action, but she had to work.
“It would mean a lot—it would open so many doors for me,” Gabriel says of the executive action.
Right now, she’s employed as a home health care worker in Philadelphia and has temporary protected status. But she’s been fighting for citizenship for years.
“I would be able to go to school; I could provide my own roof over my head and my daughter’s head,” she says.
Gabriel shares a home with her mother, also a Liberian immigrant, and her 12-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. She came to America to live with her uncle in Ohio and went to high school and college there. But Gabriel had to drop out of Akron University because she couldn’t afford to pay for school while working at a Pizza Hut. She says the battle for citizenship has been exhausting.
“It’s very stressful,” Gabriel explains. “The people I went to school with all graduated college, but I’m still stuck on the same level, and it’s depressing.”
Gabriel was lucky enough to get legal help from AFRICOM (the Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities) Philadelphia—one of many organizations across the nation dedicated to helping African and Afro-Caribbean people thread the maze of U.S. immigration laws. Executive Director Eric Edi stresses that while the Latino community is more visible and vocal, black undocumented immigrants are also affected, and will benefit from President Obama’s plan if the Supreme Court allows it to take effect.
“When the executive order was announced in November of 2014, we organized a number of sessions in the African community in Philadelphia to inform people about the ins and outs of the plan,” Edi says. “Lots of people started calling about what was going on … and it continues to generate interest in the African community.”
The program—called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA—was meant to allow more than 4 million undocumented immigrants who are the parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents to apply for a program sparing them from deportation and allowing them permits to work in the U.S. Edi says that in Philadelphia, many of the hundreds affected range from their late 30s to late 40s, and they’ve been supporting themselves in a variety of ways in the meantime.
“We’re talking about hair braiders, cabdrivers, people who work in restaurants,” Edi says, “people who work in day cares … some who are self-employed, having or owning their own shops.”
He adds that there are many mixed families that are also affected.
“Families where the parents are undocumented but their kids are U.S. citizens because they were born here. Some kids who are older can work and support their families,” Edi explains.
Another way for immigrant families to get help is through an effort called susu—in which people such as hairdressers or cabdrivers pool their money, chipping in every month, and help out a particular family in need.
Edi says that he hopes the Supreme Court case, United States v. Texas, holds up Obama’s executive actions despite Republican allegations that the president has lawlessly exceeded the limits of his authority. An appeals court ruling blocked the executive action, and the Supreme Court seemed sharply divided during arguments Monday. If there’s a deadlock, that would leave the appeals court ruling in place and allow a renewed challenge once the Supreme Court is back at full strength with nine justices. But the court could issue a landmark ruling on immigration policy and presidential power amid a contentious presidential campaign.
“We are very hopeful that it will pass,” Edi says, “but if it does not, it will be a disappointment, but immigrants will continue to work, live and survive.”
He says advocacy groups such as AFRICOM Philly are partnering with other immigration-focused organizations and Latino advocacy groups because joining hands with other communities creates a stronger immigrant voice.
But Gabriel says that she and the other immigrants she knows are just hoping for the best.
“You pray that Obama does something before he leaves office; otherwise, we’re screwed,” Gabriel says.
She says because of the help she got through Edi’s group, she doesn’t have to suffer like others who are undocumented and in hiding, “but whatever decision comes down is going to affect all of us.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can currently be heard on CBS Radio News and WTOP News Radio, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts.