Arizona's Africans Wonder What Immigration Law Means For Them

Protesters demonstrate against Arizona's new immigration laws at a rally in Phoenix on May 29, 2010.
Protesters demonstrate against Arizona's new immigration laws at a rally in Phoenix on May 29, 2010. Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Though their numbers are small, many Africans in the state worry that they will be singled out.

A small, but rapidly growing, community of African immigrants has its own concerns about Arizona's controversial immigration law. And organizations that assist the community face their own challenges of how to educate their members about their rights.

The majority of this primarily East African community entered the United States as refugees. The total population of Africans in the United States increased 40-fold between 1960 and 2006, with most of the growth coming after 1990 (as violence grew in the region). That influx is reflected in Arizona as well -- Africans now comprise about 2.6 percent of the state's  foreign-born population, more than twice the percentage in 1990. (For more background on Africans in Arizona, read this series at Phxsoul.com.)

Arizona's new law will go into effect later this month -- unless stopped by a preliminary injunction. It requires law enforcement officials to ask for documentation if, after they have lawfully stopped someone, there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally. Officers "may not solely consider race, color or national origin" to determine suspicion.

Mursal Ali, who helps with immigration services for the Somali Bantu Association of Tuscon, says that while most Africans in Arizona have documentation, there are exceptions.

Most Africans enter the United States on a refugee visa and have one year from arrival to apply for permanent residency. Ali says that some never actually applied for a Green Card, and some of those who did have lost their cards. Others cannot afford the $390 application fee.

A number of the organization's members are now going through the process to apply for permanent residency because of the changes in the law, a process that Ali says can take about four to five months. In the meantime, applicants get documentation proving they have started the process.

With or without paperwork, Africans have raised questions about how the law will impact them.

Ali says immigrants wonder what would happen if they were to call 911 in an emergency. Before, he said, if you were in a car accident, police only asked for a driver's license. "But now, if you need a police to help you, you have to prove that you are a legal immigrant," Ali believes.

That may be one example of the change in the law leading to a misconception. The Arizona Republic has been looking at hypothetical situations like that car accident scenario. In such a case as that, there generally would not be enough evidence to suspect the driver is in the country illegally -- even if he or she didn't have a driver's license to show.

At the Arizona Lost Boys Center, Executive Director Kuol Awan says members have been briefed on how to respond to police.

"We try to tell people that you don't have to react differently. Just give the police what they want," Awan says. He says he does not want the community, particularly young men, to get defensive about inquiries into their immigration status.

Though some African immigrants fear they may get swept up in the wide net of enforcement, Arizona State University Professor Matthew Whitaker says their presence is not always noticed by the larger Arizona community.

"To many folks in Arizona, Africa might as well be Neptune," Whitaker says. "It's just not on their radar screen."

The invisibility of the African community is partially due to its small size. But Whitaker says it also has to do with the fact that they tend to live in the same area, even in the same apartment complexes. Still, Whitaker says Africans could eventually draw more attention.

"If the percentages hold, and the immigration continues, and they continue to increase, that's going to be interesting," says Whitaker. "What you're going to hear from folks is, 'When did they get here?' "

(Dana Farrington is a Digital News intern with NPR.)

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