African Immigrants Feel Special Link With Obama

African immigrants feel special link with Obama
Civil-rights movement is source of historic journeys

The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), January 19, 2009

Much attention has been paid to Barack Obama becoming the nation's first Black president, but his ties to Africa highlight an often-overlooked outcome of the civil-rights movement: African immigration.

The civil-rights movement helped pave the way for Obama's presidency and helped spur the passage of the 1965 immigration act, which opened the door to immigration from Africa. Since then, immigration from the continent has accelerated, especially over the past two decades, bringing more than 1 million Africans, many of whom have settled in Arizona.

'Certainly, the larger numbers of Africans now coming to the United States wouldn't be possible without the civil-rights movement,' said Matthew Whitaker, a history professor at Arizona State University.

Whitaker said the influx of African immigrants has redefined what it means to be an African-American because in the past, most African-Americans viewed themselves through the prism of slavery.

Many of these new African-Americans feel a special connection to Obama, the son of a Kenyan, and hope his presidency will mean closer relations between Africa and the United States.

'The story of Obama – there is no other country in the world where you can have a story like that,' said Joseph Kamau, 29, a Kenyan who moved to the U.S. in 1999 as a college student and now lives in Gilbert.

Civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated today, was a staunch believer of the pan-African movement, which was dedicated to gaining independence for African nations, and promoted unity of Black people worldwide, Whitaker said. As part of that ideology, King supported welcoming African immigrants to the U.S.

Opening the door for millions

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, was largely inspired by the principles of the civil-rights movement, said Thomas J. Davis, an ASU history professor. In the first half of the 20th century, most immigrants came from Europe, he said. Before that, most of the Africans who came to the United States came as slaves.

'The act was seen as a way to end discrimination in the immigration system, as an issue of fundamental fairness,' Davis said.

The act abolished a national quota system that allotted the vast majority of available visas to European immigrants and gave very few visas to immigrants from Asia and Africa. The act allowed immigrants to come to the U.S. based on their skills and family reunification instead of their country of origin, and therefore opened the door for larger numbers of immigrants to voluntarily come to the U.S. from Africa. It also set aside visas specifically for refugees.

The 1.4 million African immigrants in the U.S. still represent less than 4 percent of the nation's 38 million foreign-born residents, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

But their numbers have increased significantly in recent years.

In the 1990s, the African-born population increased 142 percent nationally and 190 percent in Arizona. From 1990 to 2006, the African-born population in Arizona soared 577 percent, from 2,917 to nearly 20,000, according to the institute.

Americans connected to Africans

On election night in November, Whitaker said, he was struck by television images of Black people dancing and celebrating at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King was pastor, and Black people dancing and celebrating in the hometown of Obama's relatives in Kenya.

'That scene, more than anything else, dramatized and illuminated the inextricable link that exists between people of African descent in Africa and people of African descent in America,' Whitaker said. 'And Obama embodies that link and that connection. Even though he is not a direct immigrant from Africa, he embodies the tie that binds the two communities together, people on the African continent and African-Americans in the United States, and the hope that we all have for a better future and an inclusive America that does not concern itself with where someone comes from or the pigment of their skin.'

Recent immigrants from Africa generally fall into two camps: highly-educated Africans, who have the financial means to come to the U.S., and refugees, Whitaker said.

Kamau, the immigrant from Kenya, attended college in Oklahoma and California before getting a job as an information-security analyst for the city of Chandler about three years ago.

Since moving to Arizona, he has met other African immigrants from Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Congo and Ethiopia, mostly through playing soccer.

Kamau said he believes that Obama, as president, will focus more attention on some of the pressing issues in Africa, such as the AIDS epidemic, poverty and corruption.

Meshack Olweny, 38, an accountant from Kenya, came to this country after he was picked under a U.S. program that grants 50,000 diversity visas to people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates. The Mesa resident said he settled in Arizona because he had two sisters living here.

Olweny is from Kogelo, the same small, rural village in western Kenya that Obama's kin are from.

He said his grandmother and Obama's grandmother still live 'just a stone's throw away' from each other, and his father was childhood friends with Obama's father.

'I'm just proud that (Obama) is of Kenyan descent,' Olweny said.

A new life in Arizona

Many African refugees are moving to Arizona, either directly from Africa or from other states, said Eman Yarrow, a community and economic development specialist for the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program.

Arizona is one of the top five states for refugee resettlement, primarily because of the state's relatively low cost of living and job opportunities, though the recent economic crisis has made it difficult for new arrivals to find employment, Yarrow said.

Glendale resident Jeanne Nizigiyimana, 41, along with her husband and two children, came to Arizona in 1998 as a refugee who fled civil war in Burundi, a small country in central Africa. They were the first of 797 Burundi refugees to be resettled in Arizona over the past decade. Most have come in the past two years from refugee camps in Tanzania.

Nizigiyimana, who manages a health program for refugee women at Maricopa Integrated Health Systems, said she strongly identifies with Obama.

'Barack Obama is a role model to all of us who are immigrants and are looking to start a new life in this country, especially those of us who have children, when you see what they can become. He is an inspiration to all of us, and he restores life and hope to many families who came from so far.'