Immigrants and new U.S. citizens question race-category label - East Valley Tribune: News

Immigrants and new U.S. citizens question race-category label

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Posted: Saturday, September 17, 2005 5:43 am | Updated: 10:08 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

North Canyon High School graduate Esosa Joanne Iyoha talks about African-Americans as an outside group.

When the 22-year-old Nigerian immigrant took standardized tests in school, she skipped over the line for African-Americans and marked "other."

Then, if space permitted, she penciled in "African."

"I don’t associate myself with slavery," said the registered nurse at Mayo Clinic Hospital in northeast Phoenix. "And I don’t really associate myself with being African-American."

But Iyoha is black.

And tonight she will stand before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — with 53 other immigrants from across the globe — and swear allegiance to the United States in a special Citizenship Day ceremony at Gilbert’s Mesquite High School.

Technically, Iyoha will become an African-American.

But the nation might have to rethink its definition of the term as thousands of African immigrants such as Iyoha flock to the United States each year.

About 50,000 Africans arrived in 2004 — more than the number who came during any of the peak years of the American slave trade.

Latin American and Asian immigration still overshadow the flow from Africa — especially in Arizona, where more than one in four new citizens is from Mexico. But the tide from Africa is significant.

STRONG FAMILY TIES

The New York Times reported in February that more Africans have entered the United States since 1990 than in nearly the two preceding centuries combined.

Many of these immigrants are refugees, such as Scottsdale Community College student Simon Paka, 20. He is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of orphaned refugees forced from their villages by war.

But an increasing number of African immigrants come under peaceful circumstances looking for college degrees and jobs.

These new African-Americans lack ties to American slavery and the inner city culture frequently associated with black America. Many grew up in middle-class, two-parent families and have access to social networks that include doctors, nurses, engineers, professors and business executives.

Iyoha’s father is a microbiologist, her mother is a registered nurse, and the family lives in a two-story stucco house at the foot of a desert mountain.

"The key is the extended family," said Mesa Community College computer science instructor Richard Okezie, who arrived 30 years ago this month from Nigeria. "Everybody takes care of each other."

Okezie grew up in a farming family in eastern Nigeria without electricity or running water. But he decided to pursue a college degree in the United States after Christian missionaries opened his mind to the possibility.

"We admire and enjoy good things," Okezie said. "So we work hard to get them."

CLOSING THE GAP

But Okezie said new African-Americans still feel responsible to the broader black community.

Slavery and the discrimination that followed took a toll on black families, and Okezie said he appreciates the struggles that left many of these families in poverty.

"We feel that those African-Americans who were here before were the pioneers," he said. "If it wasn’t for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, we wouldn’t be here in the first place."

Still, centuries of separation by the Atlantic Ocean are not easily erased.

Okezie said recent African immigrants sometimes struggle to fit into black American culture that has been shaped by civil disobedience and peaceful protests. He said African immigrants contribute financially to these efforts when they can, but many hesitate to speak out on race issues because they fear deportation or showing disrespect to their adopted homeland.

"Due to so many years, there is a disconnection there," Okezie said. "There is a gap."

TRAUMA OF THEIR OWN

Rwanda refugee Augustin Harelimana, 41, acknowledged the gap but downplayed its significance.

"The difference is not too big because we still have the same skin," the Phoenix social worker said.

He clutched a small American flag as he spoke last week inside the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Building in Phoenix. Minutes earlier, he had raised his right hand with about 70 other immigrants and taken the oath of allegiance in a packed courtroom during a weekly citizenship ceremony.

Although Harelimana lacks ties to American slavery, his family has endured trauma of its own that creates empathy.

While Harelimana studied as a veterinarian in Senegal, soldiers back home came in the night and killed his mother with a knife. They dragged her body into the street, where relatives found the corpse three or four days later.

Harelimana’s father also was killed.

"You have to move on," said Harelimana, who arrived in the United States in 2000 after living eight years without a country. "This is a second birth for me. I was born again today."

AFRICAN BRAIN DRAIN

The wave of African immigration started in the 1970s with refugees such as Harelimana. But thousands of African immigrants today come from stable homes unaffected by war.

"You’re getting the best and the brightest from Africa," said Osaro Ighodaro, assistant academic director at Arizona State University. "People who have the resources are deliberately making the choice to come here."

Ighodaro came from Nigeria in 1985 at age 18 on a basketball scholarship.

He said some in Africa now worry about a "brain drain." But he said African immigrants in the United States send millions of dollars home each year to assist their tribes, and they also donate services and intellectual resources.

"We contribute best by being over here," he said.

RETHINKING DEFINITIONS

For some, the new wave of African immigration signals a turning point in race relations.

Africans who first came to the United States on slave ships under the worst circumstances now come freely — and filled with optimism.

"There have been some strides made," Ighodaro acknowledged.

But he also pointed out that African immigrants — like earlier immigrant groups in the United States — have jumped past inner city blacks in economic prosperity.

"For many blacks, they remain the poorest of the poor in the American economic system," Ighodaro said. "So things have not really changed for them."

He said the term "African-American" still suffices as a descriptor for all Americans with African ancestry. But he said Americans needs to broaden their understanding of what the term describes.

"It’s a loaded descriptor," he said. "And you have to be sure in what context it is being used."

For example, does the label apply to Rudolph and Annelies Hamman?

The Phoenix couple, who immigrated from South Africa in 1996, both have white European ancestry. Like Iyoha, they consider Africa their homeland but will swear allegiance to the United States today as new citizens in Gilbert.

"We really feel honored to be part of the ceremony," Annelies Hamman said.

She said some people might consider her an African-American — or a European African-American — but she looks forward to the day when such labels are unnecessary in society.

"It will become a global village," she said, "and we’ll all just be people."

Citizenship Day events

What: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will give the oath of citizenship to 54 immigrants. Fireworks will follow

When: 6 to 9:30 p.m. today

Where: Mesquite High School, 500 S. McQueen Road, Gilbert

Information: www.constitutionweek.com

What: Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Fountain Hills celebrate together.

When: 6 to 8:15 p.m. today

Where: Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza, 7380 E. Second St.

Information: (480) 945-2025

Meet the Tribune

The Tribune will operate a booth at the Gilbert event. People can meet Executive Editor Jim Ripley, columnist Slim Smith and Gilbert reporters.

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