West Africans Uncertain About Immigration Relief

Ramatu Ahmed, a community organizer in the Bronx, says undocumented parents can be intimidated by requests to show their IDs to enter their children's schools. (Photo by Kristen Clark for Voices of NY)

Ramatu Ahmed, a Ghanaian community organizer in the Bronx, says undocumented parents can be intimidated by requests to show their ID to enter their children’s schools. (Photo by Kristen Clark for Voices of NY)

Moustapha, a 42-year-old cab driver in the Bronx, spends most of his week taking people exactly where they want to go. But when it comes to three of his most important passengers, his options are much more limited. More than anything, he wants to take his children – ages 7, 4 and 18 months – to Disneyland. For Moustapha’s family, however, that is not a possibility.

“I can’t do many things with them, because I’m scared to go on planes,” says Moustapha, who asked for his last name to be omitted from this story. “I don’t want to take that risk.”

Moustapha used someone else’s name and passport when he entered the U.S. illegally from the Ivory Coast 12 years ago. As a result, he’s too anxious to fly in airplanes for fear of being detained – or worse, deported – and separated from his children, all of whom are American citizens.

In relative terms, Moustapha’s family is lucky. In 2013, 72,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported and separated from their U.S.-born children, according to a report submitted to Congress by Immigration Customs Enforcement, resulting in thousands of those children ending up in foster care or single-parent homes. Even for the 4.5 million children whose undocumented parents have thus far managed to avoid deportation, the uncertainty and instability created by the fear of deportation take a serious financial, psychological, and educational toll.

Beginning next year, however, Moustapha and other undocumented parents may get some temporary relief from that uncertainty, thanks to Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. The measure is part of an executive order announced in November by the Obama administration, in an effort to prioritize the deportation of criminals over families. Under DAPA, undocumented parents whose children are citizens or green card holders and who meet other eligibility requirements will be shielded from deportation for three years, and offered the opportunity to apply for work permits.

“Of course their lives would change if I could work legally,” says Moustapha. Rather than driving a cab, he says, he’d apply for a job working with computers or electronics that might allow him to bring more money home to his family. More than anything, he says, the executive order would provide some temporary relief from the daily fear of deportation that community leaders and experts say creeps into the lives of the children in subtle and corrosive ways.

“They’ve heard stories of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] coming in and taking folks away,” says Charles Cooper, president of the African Advisory Council to the Bronx borough president. “These stories are household stories in the African community.”

One of the most profound effects of this fear, say Cooper and other community leaders, is that it makes it difficult for parents to advocate on behalf of their school-aged children when issues like attendance, English as a second language instruction, discipline, and special needs come up.

Josephine Ofili is the PTA president at her child’s school and the appointee to her local Community Education Council. But she says that she’s had trouble getting other African parents to come to school meetings.

“Look, don’t tell me these parents don’t care. Education is number one among African parents,” says Ofili, an African parent herself. “So there’s something that we [the schools] are not doing.”

For parents without documentation, says Ghanaian community organizer Ramatu Ahmed, even small formalities like signing in at the school’s front desk can be an intimidating deterrent to getting involved.

“The school guard will ask you for your ID — and if you don’t have one, it really hampers parents’ confidence to go to schools,” she says. Ahmed believes that by providing a temporary sense of security along with identification, the new Obama measures will allow more immigrant parents to speak up for their kids.

Nationally, 6.9 percent of children in kindergarten through 12th grade have at least one undocumented parent, according to a recent study by Pew Research. That works out to be more than one child for every classroom in America — a figure that’s almost certainly higher in immigration hubs like New York City.

Mamadou Ba, the parent coordinator at the French American Charter School in Harlem, says that even when parents he suspects to be undocumented make it through the school doors and into his office, they still face barriers to getting services that would help their children succeed. Ba says many undocumented immigrants mistakenly assume they can’t access programs like free lunch, immunizations and other health services, even when their children fully qualify as citizens. Even when they do realize their kids qualify, those benefits are means-tested, providing yet another obstacle.

“When it comes to filing information,” says Ba, “imagine a parent without proper working authorization. Providing information like income to the city or federal government? That’s a problem.”

While immigration lawyers are adamant that registering for these services cannot result in deportation, Ba says many undocumented parents worry about incriminating their employers. A similar barrier stands in the way of their applying for food stamps and Medicaid — a particularly cruel paradox considering that many undocumented parents work at wages nearly 40 percent below New York State’s legal minimum, according to a study released early this month by the United States Labor Department.

Obama’s executive order may also help children of undocumented immigrants long before they ever set foot in a classroom, says Hirokazu Yoshikawa, author of the book “Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children.” Yoshikawa’s research on undocumented New York City families showed that parents were frequently reluctant or afraid to enroll their children in programs like subsidized childcare or preschool that might enrich their learning.

Anxiety over being discovered and deported also cripples undocumented parents’ social networks, and prevents them from even hearing about resources that might help their kids. In some cases, says Yoshikawa, his research team was the first to inform parents that their neighborhood had a public library. And Yoshikawa observed evidence of the psychological distress created by all this uncertainty in children as young as 2 years old.

“A lot of the discussion reverts to, ‘Oh, but they’re illegal,’” says Yoshikawa, adding that the vast majority of children of undocumented immigrants are actually U.S. citizens. “We can’t as a country afford to write off millions of children and their learning when we’re thinking about our future economy.”

Experts say the same anxieties that currently prevent children of undocumented immigrants from accessing crucial resources may ultimately limit how effective the new immigration measures may be – since they require registering with the U.S. government while offering no certainty beyond the three-year mark, nor any path to permanent legal status. Still, says Jessica Greenberg, a staff attorney at the African Services Committee, for immigrants whose stability is uncertain anyway, a three-year reprieve from fear of deportation is often worth the risk.

“What we say, especially to parents, is: ‘Here’s the thing. They kind of already know you’re here,’” said Greenberg. “’Whether or not they care – that’s a different story.’”

Greenberg said that unless an undocumented immigrant has a serious criminal conviction on the books, he or she tends not to be a priority for immigration enforcement. Immigration doesn’t have the resources to meet current caseloads, and since anyone facing deportation is entitled to due process rights under U.S. law, many current cases are already backed up to 2018. Greenberg tells her clients that three years of legal work and some peace of mind might well be worth coming forward.

However, many details of Obama’s executive order are still very unclear, says Greenberg. Legal experts are still waiting for details about the wording of the measure – for example how the phrases “child” and “threat to national security” are defined.

Even more up in the air is what happens after the measures expire – a concern echoed by many community members who said that the measures don’t go nearly far enough in offering stability to families.

Still, community leaders are hopeful. Ramatu Ahmed said that some members of her Bronx mosque “were in tears in front of their television” when they heard the news of the executive order, and that many were already coming “out of the closet” as undocumented to ask for help for the first time.

“It’ll mean folks who have been in the shadows [will now be] participating in the structures of government,” said Charles Cooper. “It won’t solve the problem. It’s a Band-Aid. But it’s going to do a lot for our community as a whole.”

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