The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that hundreds of thousands of young people can continue living and working in the United States with protections afforded them by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative.
The landmark decision was met with relief and excitement by activists who are united in the fight for immigration reform and an end to anti-Black racism but who sometimes have operated in separate spaces.
Actor and activist Bambadjan Bamba reflects the intersection of these two sets of issues. Bamba, 38, is both Black and undocumented. As a Hollywood actor, he has used his megaphone to fight for Dreamers like himself as well as in the movement for Black lives.
Bamba says groups fighting for racial justice are also increasingly embracing the struggle for immigrant rights. For him, the two are inextricably linked: “Immigrant communities, Latino communities, and African American communities suffer the same plight as far as police brutality is concerned, as far as the numbers of people who are locked up in prisons. To me, we’re kind of fighting the same fight,” Bamba told the author via a phone interview.
“A lot of people would have you think that undocumented immigrants are just Latino people or that it’s just a Latino issue,” he said. “But here I am. I’m Black, and I’m undocumented. Those two are one thing.”
Movie fans might remember Bamba for his role in the blockbuster 2018 superhero film “Black Panther.” He also had a recurring role in the hit television show “The Good Place.”
But for several months, as he awaited the Supreme Court decision deciding the fate of DACA, it was Bamba’s identity as an undocumented immigrant that was in the fore. He is one of 825,000 undocumented young adults brought to the United States as children who received permission to remain in the country and work lawfully under DACA.
Bamba was just 10 years old when his family fled the African nation of Ivory Coast to escape political persecution. His parents fought for years to get political asylum, but he was unable to qualify for permanent legal residency. In the end, he says, it was DACA that allowed him to emerge “from the shadows.”
Now, he’s lending his voice to the movement against systemic racism that swept the nation after the horrifying murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, speaking out in media interviews and taking part in rallies and protests.
Bamba is convinced that the Supreme Court also took stock of the social changes sweeping the nation in its June 18 DACA ruling. The decision “comes three weeks after the police murdered George Floyd and the global protests for social justice around the world for Black people in America,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do with why they decided to vote the right way.”
Research published in 2017 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found that nearly 11,000 DACA recipients come from countries where Black people make up more than half of those nations’ immigrants to the United States. Once they’re here, Black immigrants are subjected to the same discrimination that U.S.-born Black Americans encounter.
The nonprofit group Black Alliance for Just Immigration wrote in its 2018 report “The State of Black Immigrants” that while Black people make up just 5.4 percent of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States, they constitute 10.6 percent of individuals in deportation proceedings. “Those are some realities that we have to deal with when you’re Black and undocumented,” Bamba said about the study.
Bamba noted that civil rights-era advances toward greater racial justice for Black Americans have been followed by gains by other groups including immigrants, who saw a major breakthrough with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. That law replaced the 1924 Immigration Act, thereby ending the discriminatory national origin quota system that restricted the numbers of immigrants who weren’t from northern European countries. The 1965 law, which dramatically increased immigration to the United States by people from Africa and Asia, was enacted just one year after the landmark Civil Rights Act.
“Generally, whenever there’s Black progress, everyone benefits. I don’t think there would be an Immigration [and Nationality] Act without the Civil Rights Act,” Bamba said.
In the aftermath of this year’s nationwide anti-racism protests, statues that celebrate slave owners and the Confederacy are falling, and racist policies in public and private institutions are being replaced.
Bamba says this progress is celebrated by Black Dreamers. But they also feel the sting of racism in this country. “When the police show up and see a Black guy behind the wheel, or they come breaking [down] someone’s door, they don’t care what your immigration status is. First of all, you’re Black in America,” he said. “Not only do I have the strike against me of being feared by the police and dealing with inequities and racism, but I’m also dealing with another strike of being an immigrant without papers.”
Nevertheless, Bamba remains optimistic about the path that lies ahead for Dreamers and hopes to expand the hard-fought rights they have won. He’s joined by other Black undocumented immigrants, who have become increasingly vocal since the founding in 2016 of UndocuBlack—an organization that aims to foster the creation of “truly inclusive immigrant rights and racial justice movements that advocate for the rights of Black undocumented individuals, provide healing spaces, and community to those with intersecting identities.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to not end DACA, Bamba said, has a lot to do with encouraging levels of support the initiative has received from the American public.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whatever age, race, or religion … Americans believe that Dreamers should have a pathway to citizenship,” he said.
“The next big step,” he added, “is to have parents—the original Dreamers who brought us here, [who] suffered, who did everything possible so that we can have a better future—to also be able to come out of the shadows and be free.”
Stephanie Griffith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.