After a terrorist attack, many people of color, including myself, hold our breath, hoping that the perpetrator in question isn’t black, isn’t brown, isn’t Muslim, isn’t an immigrant. It’s routine now: An attack committed by a non-white person will be used as a rationale to justify mass restrictions and increased surveillance on communities that were already vulnerable.
Still, I never would have imagined that an act of mass violence allegedly committed by a man from Uzbekistan would spur me to go on the defensive for Africans. But it’s Trump’s America, so anything is possible, I guess.
Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbekistan national, is accused of killing eight and injuring 11 by plowing a pickup truck through a crowd of people in Manhattan. He came to the United States in 2010 on a diversity visa. President Trump tweeted, “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.”
Let’s talk about immigration and “merit.”
The diversity lottery, more commonly known until recently as the green-card lottery, was created in 1990 to give an edge to underrepresented European countries in the immigration process. Since its inception though, the diversity lottery has become more often used by Africans seeking ways to enter the United States. Between 1994 and 2015, Africans accounted for more than 415,000 immigrants to the United States on the diversity visa program. According to the Pew Research foundation, in 2015, Ghana was the country with the highest number of applications (about 1.7 million) for the diversity visa lottery program. As a daughter of Ghanaian and Nigerian immigrants, I have friends and family who have benefited from the diversity visa lottery system. Trump could stand to learn a little bit about Ghanaians and our “merit” here in the States.
It was a son of a Ghanaian immigrants who made news earlier this year for his acceptance into all eight of the Ivy league schools. Ghanaian British designer David Adjaye was the architectural genius who designed the National Museum of African American history. Remember Freddy Adu, the young soccer phenom of the early aughts? His mother came to the United States on a diversity visa from Ghana.
Celebrities and superstars aside, ordinary Ghanaians, just like many other Africans here in the United States, are hardworking, high-achieving citizens. We are doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers, taxi drivers, shop owners, hairdressers and everything in between. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 12 percent of Ghanaians have a master’s degree or higher, compared with 11 percent of the general U.S. born population. Ghanaians diasporans 16-years-old and higher who live in the states are slightly more likely to participate in the labor force (76 percent vs. 64 percent). In terms of formal employment, Ghanaians are employed at similar rates to the general population, but, like many blacks in the United States, are still underrepresented in professional and managerial occupations.
But there’s a darker side to the emphasis on merit achievements for many black immigrants. Many have toiled to gain an education in their home countries, only to fail to find sustainable employment. The pressures to “merit” being here, to assimilate and be a model citizen, coupled with dealing with the rigors of the immigration process, coping with discrimination, as well as the pressure to make enough money to send some to family in home countries, all take a toll on mental and emotional health. Studies have shown that African immigrants are among the least likely to seek psychological help. We tell ourselves that mental health issues don’t affect us. Or more likely, we are told to go to church and pray the pain away.
As many African and West Indian kids of immigrants will tell you, our parents push us hard to succeed, and for many with the means, the American dream is down the Ivy league path. Indeed, African immigrants and first generation kids do account for a high number of the black faces at top schools. But this has led to tensions between black Americans and African students. Just last month, the Black Students United at Cornell University sparked controversy by complaining that “The Black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students,” and that there is a “lack of investment in Black students whose families were affected directly by the African holocaust in America.”
The Black Student United has walked back their initial statement — but it shows that when it comes to proving our merit, we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If African immigrants and their children don’t work hard enough to get into top schools, we don’t belong in white America. If we do get into top schools, we are taking spots from black Americans and white Americans.
Despite Trump’s efforts, immigration is an American beauty. The diversity lottery is a part of that American promise of a better life. I love the freedoms that the United States affords. But it’s hard not to resent the fact that people with immigrant backgrounds like me have to constantly prove that we are worthy of belonging here.