Late last year, a group of African leaders in the so-called Tri-State area – Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware – organised an information session in Delaware targeting mainly African immigrants in the United States (US) who were in the country illegally.
The aim of the workshop was to primarily create a forum for thousands of African immigrants who had issues with immigration to explore ways to regularise their stay in the US through petitions and court applications, Mr David Amakobe, an immigration activist based in Delaware, told the Nation.
“As part of the resource persons, we had leading immigration attorneys, officials of the US Census Bureau and Statistics and activists from the Legal Aid Unit in the city of Wilmington. All these people had information on how one can go about applying for legal status such as work permit and a Green Card that puts one on a pathway to citizenship while in the US even if one was already out of status or had overstayed their visa. It didn’t matter if one had a brush with the law, these people were there to show you how you could go about using the same law to your benefit,” said Mr Amakobe.
But, what surprised Mr Amakobe was that in a small State like Delaware with an estimated Kenyan immigrant population of at least 7,000 – a substantial number thought to lack proper papers – less than 10 of them turned up for the workshop. Mr Amakobe said he had witnessed a similar low turnout in past events even though the information provided is expected to come in handy at times like this when the new administration of President Donald Trump has taken a hardline stance and is expected to deport millions of illegal immigrants. In a recent dispatch to the Department of Homeland Security, President Trump directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes.
Documents released on Tuesday by the department showed the broad scope of the President’s ambitions, which included, among others, the publicising of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, stripping of such immigrants of privacy protections, enlistment of local police officers as enforcers, erection of new detention facilities, discouragement of asylum seekers, and stepping up and speeding up of deportations. The new enforcement policies put into practice language that Mr Trump used on the campaign trail, vastly expanding the definition of “criminal aliens” and warning that such unauthorised immigrants “routinely victimise Americans”, disregard the “rule of law and pose a threat” to people across the US. Despite those assertions in the new documents, experts maintain and are supported by research finding that actually show lower levels of crime among immigrants than among Native Americans.
Even though statistics showing the exact number of Kenyans living in the US illegally are scarce, it is estimated that two in every five Kenyans in the US do not have proper authorisation to be there and this number runs into tens of thousands.
And even though the new guidelines leave intact the category of an estimated 750,000 young people, among them Kenyans who qualified for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which grants two years of permission to work and protection from deportation to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, many Kenyans living are worried because the current raids are likely to separate children from their parents.
“My two sons are worried that one day they will come back home from school and find that my husband and I have been picked up and deported,” said a Kenyan who lives in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, who requested anonymity.
She and her husband came on student visas that expired 10 years ago.
Prof David Monda, a Kenyan professor of political science at the City University of New York Guttman College, said there has always been a lot of secrecy surrounding immigration.
“Many Kenyans would share an apartment without one knowing the other person’s immigration status until one was held by law enforcement. Then you’d see a message going around the Kenyan community that so and so has been held by officers and they needed money for a bond and an immigration attorney,” he said.
Prof Monda said part of the reason this was so was because many Kenyans living in the US do not trust each other with such intimate and private information for fear of being “outed” when the friendship went sour.
While agreeing that it’s the wrong time to be an illegal immigrant in the US, Kenyan immigration attorney, Ms Sarah Wairimu Brooks, who is based in Dallas, advised those affected not to panic but immediately seek the guidance of a credible immigration lawyer.
“People should know that this cloud that hangs over millions of people now in the US illegally shall come to pass because America has been in such a situation several times in its history. Resistance to such draconian laws and decrees that affect the lives of people is growing,” she said.
She advised those who are not US citizen to carry with them proper documentation to show their immigration status – including those legally in the country.
“That means you carry your Green Card with you if you are not a US citizen. Carry documents that show you have been in the US for two years,” she said.