When it comes to President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies, Voffee Jabateh said they are not unexpected.
“One good thing about this president, you don’t get no surprises,” he said. “He tells you outright what he’s going to do: Promises made; promises kept.”
As the chief executive officer for the nonprofit African Cultural Alliance of North America, Jabateh is on the front lines of helping African and Caribbean immigrants resettle in the region, including providing legal services to navigate the byzantine and time-consuming immigration process.
While sitting at his desk in his Southwest Philadelphia office, Jabateh said he has noticed negative changes to the immigration system under Trump, which have resulted in an overall more stringent process and increased the level of suspicion from federal officials.
“Any little trigger — things that were not previously part of the process — are being used to put stress and pressure on an immigrant,” he said.
Before and after being elected president, Trump has called for stricter immigration policies and made numerous disparaging comments about countries and racial groups, including calling Haiti and African nations “s--thole” countries and making a reference to Nigerian immigrants never wanting to return to their “huts.”
As Jabateh spoke, demonstrators encamped at City Hall and major cities across the country continued for a second week their protests against Trump’s harsh immigration policies and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Although the Occupy ICE protests are responding to the treatment of Latin American immigrants and the separation of parents from their children at the Mexico-United States border, immigration policies overall are having a “huge impact” on African and Caribbean immigrants, said Eric Edi, president and chief operating office of AFRICOM.
“There is no way that the only people being targeted are the Latino community or Brown people,” said Edi, whose organization advocates for African and Caribbean immigrants.
Jabateh, who immigrated from Liberia nearly 30 years ago, said among the most significant changes he has witnessed to the immigration process since Trump entered office has been a reduction in the amount of time a petitioner has before his or her first immigration hearing.
In the past the process would take months or years and allow petitioners to adjust to the United States, begin working, and compile proof for their cases, but it now takes four to six weeks — a change Jabateh described as “unprecedented.”
“It makes all of us feel that it is intended to deny many of these cases,” he said.
Whereas in other cases, Jabateh said he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigration hearings transferred to immigration judges to determine a petitioner’s eligibility, which results in prolonging the process and substantially increasing legal costs. Although, Jabateh noted the transfers are more welcomed than denials.
Philadelphia boasts a sizeable population of African immigrants, and has one of the largest Liberian communities in the nation. The Philadelphia region was among the top 10 metropolitan areas with the largest foreign-born populations from Africa between 2008-12, according to the U.S. Census.
For Edi, the new and aggressive immigration policies are creating a sense of fear among African immigrants — both citizens and non-citizens alike.
Edi said that questions remain about whether the Trump Administration will make the acceptance of some public benefits — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, or Medicaid — subject to “public charge” consideration as part of someone’s immigration petition, which are grounds for inadmissibility and deportation. These benefits, including others, are currently not part of a public charge consideration.
“This is something we are getting ready for,” he said.
In addition, Edi said those of African descent are relating experiences of increased scrutiny when traveling abroad, especially to and from African nations. The effect creates a sense of trauma and racial profiling for those who endure it.
Since Trump has taken office, AFRICOM has ramped up trainings, seminars, and legal clinics focusing on the immigration system. Edi added that the organization even provides an informational fact-sheet, printed in numerous languages, for immigrants and citizens to use if they encounter law enforcement or ICE.
“Sometimes not being able to speak English properly can lead you into trouble, if you want to venture to answer questions,” Edi said.
The election, Edi said, has encouraged him to build strong alliances with other organizations, specifically those geared toward the Latin American community, such as Juntos, and created a greater need for community-based organizations.
Edi said he supported the Occupy ICE protests because they are drawing attention to what he called unjust immigration policies.
“There is no way we can stand aside, even if you don’t have a majority of African people at the border, or Caribbean people at the border being separated from their children,” Edi said. “The fact that it’s a human rights issue, ... we have to jump in.”
He added: “If today, we do not response, we do not participate, we do not voice our concerns, what happens when tomorrow when an immigration policy is made that severely impacts the African or Caribbean community? Are we going to count on the support of our Latino fellows or Brown fellows? In social movements, you always rely on allies.”