The perspectives on voting among Caribbean and African immigrants are as diverse as their backgrounds, translating into groups that view the right as a non-negotiable must and those that don’t entertain it at all.
“There’s a huge gap,” said Oni Richards, executive director of the African Family Health Organization (AFAHO). “If you’ve been here 30 years, a citizen for 10 to 20 years and settled, then you’re able to be more engaged. Whereas, if you have only a few years, it’s a new experience, it’s different. It’s different across the spectrum.”
A 2017 Pew State of the City report notes that 10 percent of the city’s foreign-born residents are from Africa hailing from several countries including Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Dominicans, Haitians and Jamaicans make up a significant presence, with 14,861, 6,820 and 6,565 people, respectively.
Of the roughly 800 to 1,000 people that AFAHO serves, Richards said “15 to 20 percent” are naturalized citizens who can vote but that “it’s hard to say” how many actually vote and she thinks that they “have not been really engaged.”
Through AFAHO, Richards — a native Liberian green card holder, and other organizers help African and Caribbean immigrants with a range of social services, healthcare and education. Because some of AFAHO’s clients are recent immigrants or have urgent concerns — some are looking for jobs to support families; some have dire health issues; some come in seeking help with managing HIV, Richards said voting is not high on their list of priorities.
“People have so many competing needs, when you're an immigrant, voting becomes a [least] priority,” she said. “They are thinking about other things — employment, access to healthcare, just being able to be legal.”
Richards also observed that some African immigrants, because of the countries they come from, usually focus on presidential elections and not state and congressional. She said AFAHO began encouraging clients to vote when Obama ran for president and that they recently started educating clients on the importance of other elections.
“More recently, we’ve been trying to become more intentional about talking to them about the importance of voting at every level,” she said.
Voffee Jabateh, CEO and executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), sees two sides — immigrants that respect the right, but who may not be in the position to exercise it.
“The African immigrant comes from a background where political participation is very important to them. In fact, a lot of the reason why some of us came into exile is that there was … somebody who tried to deprive another voter from participating or voter fraud. So when we come to a place like America and we become American citizens, the first thing we want to be is active in the voting process and selecting leadership. Because we know wrong leadership can lead to … civil strife,” he said. “If you are qualified to vote, you do vote. [But] you don't even talk about voting until you become a citizen. Most African immigrants — they work a lot, so they can be here for 20 years and they don't have a need to approach a congressperson because there is no time to do that."
Eric Edi, executive director of AFRICOM, a coalition of African and Caribbean communities, said they are working to get more naturalized citizens to vote.
“In the past there has been impressive work. Back in 2004, when Mayor John street was running, we created a huge bloc of support. You can also measure that bloc by Caribbeans and Africans who have been interested in Barack Obama,” Edi said. “[But] there are some weaknesses. In order to build a stronger voting bloc, we ask organizations to ask their community members to be registered voters and we encourage those eligible for naturalization — to proceed with that.”
AFRICOM also hosts regular legal clinics and candidate forums when elections approach. And even though there is no measure of how many naturalized citizens vote — the registration form does not ask if a voter is a naturalized — Edi said they still make their presence known as a minority community.
“We do meet with elected officials to understand policies, to understand their positions on issues … their voting records and that allows our community members to be knowledgeable about what issues are impacting their lives,” said Edi, noting visits to Sen. Pat Toomey’s office and letters to Sen. Bob Casey as a few examples.
One particular issue that AFRICOM has begun to rally around, along with similar organizations, is the recent decision by the presidential administration to end the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) for Liberians. It was a protective status granted to Liberian immigrants who were fleeing the country for, among other reasons, civil unrest. The status was extended by previous presidents but the Trump administration decided in March to end it next year.
“We have one [legal clinic] coming up on April 21 with Liberians. We also have signed letters to lawmakers and legislators,” Edi said. “The first thing is we need to talk to our community members in terms of what it means to have DED terminated. We also organize legal clinics to deem who is eligible for other forms of relief. The legal clinics are free and they do allow members of the community who are concerned to meet with accredited lawyers and see what options they have.”
The one issue with the reaction to the DED termination, said another AFRICOM leader, is the timeliness.
“Those things have come a little too late,” said Vera B. Tolbert, Ph.D., referencing a letter from different congresspeople asking that the DED status be renewed.
“We should have advocated … Those should be done continuously. It’s a very unfortunate situation because they have been here forever. We will continue to fight for that. We have another year. Right now, I am a little upset because there are a lot of [parents] trying to figure out what’s next. Their kids were born into this country.”
Tolbert, a naturalized citizen from Liberia who votes “to have her voice heard at the polls,” continued that Philadelphia’s legislators and congresspeople seem to care but that there is room for improvement. “I’m not sure if they are doing enough until it’s too late,” she said. “I know they have a lot on their plate but nothing is going to happen until we the people get to them and advocate.”
Tolbert’s communal attitude was shared by others, including Jabateh.
“A rep cannot work in a vacuum,” he said. “You have to target your desire into a specific programmatic area. You can’t just say they need to be doing more, you also need to be able to hold their feet to a specific program model.”
Originally from Nigeria, Ganiyu Adekunle, 29, has lived in Philadelphia since 1993, but became a citizen in 2010. He’s voted ever since he could.
“I vote every chance I get,” he said. “When it comes to traditional politics, whether directly or indirectly, there are certain issues I'm adamant about,” he said. “You just have to do it, you can’t rely on what may happen as long as you do your part. If everyone did the bare minimum, we would be alright.”
Other immigrants that are not naturalized citizens and can not vote said they input on community change through advocacy and activism.
“I do things that are social, which is higher than the political aspect,” said Cleous Young, a green card holder from Jamaica. “I go out do [programming] around bullying at schools, churches and community events. I'm still active in…voter registration, behind the scenes.” Young holds a degree in human service and psychology and also teaches classes as part of a program that serves non-traditional students.
“Even though I don’t vote, I still contribute to the community,” he said.