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For Black DACA Recipients In Texas, It Often Feels 'Impossible To Exist'

Lynda Gonzalez
Oluwatoyosi, a chemical engineering major at UT-Austin, prepares to show her collection of ankara clothing at Fest Africa: Africa Uncut.

Editor's note: We have removed the last name of the woman profiled in this story to protect the identity of her parents.

Oluwatoyosi, Toyosi for short, stands observant, her hands clasped in the middle of a crowd of more than 40 people in the basement of Hogg Auditorium. The 21-year-old is showcasing a collection of designs at Fest Africa: Africa Uncut, the Texas African Student Organization’s annual cultural showcase.

Toyosi is a chemical engineering major with a concentration in textiles at UT-Austin. She says she wants to one day create wearable technology to improve everyday life, like clothing to repel mosquitoes in malarial zones.

She’s set to graduate in December and she’s looking for a job, but she has one pressing issue while talking to recruiters.

“I kind of avoided … the whole sponsorship question,” Toyosi says. “I kind of wanted them to like me first, and then I’ll bring up sponsorship.”

Toyosi needs sponsorship in order to work in the U.S. after she graduates. She's one of fewer than 2 percent of black immigrants receiving DACA protections. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shields from deportation immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, but the Trump administration rescinded the program in September.

Toyosi's DACA status is set to expire in September 2018, but she can't renew it.

Credit Lynda Gonzales / KUT
Toyosi is one of fewer than 2 percent of black immigrants receiving DACA protections. She was brought to the U.S. from Nigeria when she was 3.

Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Nigeria when she was just 3. Her father was studying IT on a student visa and worked in Houston for a while, but after the 2008 recession his employer wouldn’t keep sponsoring his visa. 

"When they talk about undocumented immigrants, they don't talk about black undocumented immigrants."

Toyosi's parents applied for green cards in 2001, but still haven’t received them. Because they were born in the U.S., her 10- and 17-year-old brothers have Social Security numbers

Toyosi says she thought not having a Social Security number and not being able to get a driver’s license were normal things teenagers dealt with.

“My parents didn’t really tell me that I was undocumented," she says, "and so when I was filling all of these forms out to apply for DACA that’s when I realized like, ‘Oh, this is different.’”

After that awareness came fear and isolation.

“When they talk about undocumented immigrants," Toyosi says, "they don’t talk about black undocumented immigrants."

Only 7 percent of the 22 million undocumented people in the U.S. are black, though not all of them are from Africa. Texas is home to the third largest African-born population. The state also saw the greatest increase in population, 111 percent, from 2000 to 2010.

Issues with finding services

After the administration announced it was rescinding DACA, Toyosi went to an informational meeting hosted by the University Leadership Initiative, an immigration organization on campus. That’s where she met Deborah Alemu, the only other black immigrant in the room of about 100 people.

“We felt the need to pull something together that embraced both worlds of being undocumented and black and navigating living in the United States with those identities,” says Alemu, membership coordinator for Undocublack, a network of undocumented black people.

Alemu, whose family is originally from Ethiopia, says the organization was formed because black immigrants were being ignored.

"It often feels that it is impossible to exist as a black undocumented person," she says, "because there are no checkboxes for you."

"If we think that there's a particular community that is especially vulnerable to immigration enforcement or violation of their due process rights ... because of the color of their skin, that's a problem we ought to be paying attention to."

Undocublack formed in Miami last year. There are chapters in Los Angeles, New York City and in Austin. Alemu says the organization provides health care clinics, legal clinics and information, but it can sometimes be a challenge in places like Texas.

“There [are] certainly black immigrants [who] speak Spanish, but there’s a population that doesn’t as well, so to find resources that are accessible to our communities has been an uphill battle,” she says.

Robert Painter is the director of pro bono programs and communication at American Gateways, which provides legal services and community outreach to low-income immigrants in Central Texas. He says language barriers can create delays for many immigrants, especially those trying to tap into social services.  

“Having culturally competent resources can be a challenge, because the vast majority of immigrants come from South America, Central America and Mexico,” he says. “Maybe not so much of the legal services, but other social services are more geared to that population.”

Painter says organizations need to do a better job of reaching out to smaller immigrant populations.

“If we think that there’s a particular community that is especially vulnerable to immigration enforcement or violation of their due process rights … because of the color of their skin," he says, "that’s a problem we ought to be paying attention to."

Alemu says that’s exactly what she’s advocating for.

“That may seem innocent,” she says. “It might seem coincidental and accidental, but it came down to influential orgs getting a say in policies and that negatively impacting us.”

According to the State of Black Immigration study by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, about 20 percent of immigrants facing detention on criminal grounds are black. Alemu calls this number astounding.

“A lot of times people ask if citizenship is the goal … and I say 'no,'” she says. “You’ve got black citizens living in the United States who still don’t have full dignity and full rights.”

Credit Lynda Gonzales / KUT
Toyosi walks down the runway during her fashion show at Fest Africa: Africa Uncut.

A look ahead

Toyosi says her parents plan to wait until her brother turns 21, so he can file for citizenship for them. Once they become citizens, they can file for Toyosi if she hasn't found a job to sponsor her. This could take decades.

“America is the only place I know, and I love this country and it just hurts 'cause this country hates me and I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m always going to be limited because of my status and that just sucks.”

Unless Congress makes a decision soon, she’ll have to make a plan for after her DACA protection expires Sept. 19. She says she hasn’t been to Nigeria since she was a toddler.

“Despite all of this stuff going on, you can’t take away the fact that I have my education, you know,” she says. “So, I will celebrate because I am proud of myself and proud of what I accomplished, but I also want to have a job.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of one of Toyosi's brothers and the age required to sponsor a parent's U.S. citizenship.

DaLyah Jones is a former assistant producer for All Things Considered and evening host. She is also co-host of the Two & Fro podcast.
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