Patricia Okoumou and the Dual Threat to Black Immigrants

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Therese Patricia Okoumou is joined by her attorney Rhiya Trivedi as she speaks to reporters outside federal court, Thursday, July 5, 2018, in New York. Okoumou pleaded not guilty Thursday to misdemeanor trespassing and disorderly conduct. Photo: Mary Altaffer

When New York–based activists Rise and Resist planned to use Independence Day to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, their objective was simple: to unfurl a banner declaring “Abolish ICE” on Liberty Island. Patricia Okoumou, however, took it further, risking life, limb, and liberty in free-climbing the 100-foot-tall pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty and lying at its feet. During the three-hour standoff, she repurposed her shirt into a flag of its own, defiantly displaying the call to action to “Rise and Resist.”

Upon release from arraignment, where she was charged and pleaded not guilty to three federal misdemeanor charges — trespassing, interfering with government functions, and disorderly conduct — Okoumou spoke plainly about her opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “white supremacy is terrorism” and introducing herself as a naturalized citizen who immigrated from her native Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1994, she said the “draconian, zero-tolerance policy on immigration has to go. In a democracy we do not put children in cages … reunite the children now.” If there were any remaining questions of her intent, she proudly declared that “Michelle Obama, our beloved First Lady … said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could.”

Okoumou laid plain the irony of celebrating the freedoms represented on Liberty Island while immigrant families are being split up and held indefinitely in detention centers, but she also did something else — put a Black woman immigrant in the center of the debate. While the visceral showdown at the U.S.-Mexico border emphasized Latin American immigration, separation policies and, more broadly, quickly eroding immigration protections have a long reach. The effects have been particularly acute for Black immigrants, who are one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States.

Since 28 percent of Sub-Saharan African immigrants have entered the nation as refugees or asylees between 2000 and 2013 — statuses that can only be applied for upon entry to the U.S. — the family-separation policy poses significant risk to Black immigrant populations. In fact, two of the primary plaintiffs chosen by the ACLU for their class-action suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also of Congolese heritage: a mother and daughter who came to the U.S. seeking asylum last year. They were separated four days later and held at San Diego and Chicago detention centers, respectively, for over five months.

Adding to the problems faced by black refugees and asylees is the pending expiration of the eligibility to live and work in the United States via Temporary Protected Status for many countries. The designation is currently given to eligible residents of ten countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster, including approximately 50,000 Haitians, who were issued the status in 2010 as a result of the earthquake that devastated the nation. While United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) director Francis Cissna alleges that Haiti “no longer continues to meet the conditions for designation,” this is contradicted by the USCIS’s own report that states “many of the conditions” prompting the original designation still exist. The effort to keep the program alive, which successfully lobbied for an extension until July 2019, staves off the potential disruption of thousands of families of disjointed immigration status, many of whom have established roots and raised American-born children. But while the delayed deadline provides some reprieve from pending displacement, the potential impact to families and communities necessitates an urgency in remediation that has prompted lawsuits from multiple organizations, including the NAACP and ACLU.

Black immigrants face the dual threat of bias in the criminal-justice system and cruelty in the immigration and deportation system. The two systems overlap through initiatives such as the Secure Communities Program, which deputize local police with the ability to vet and report suspects for immigration violations through a fingerprint database, and executive orders that threaten to void the visas of any immigrant who is convicted of a crime. Racial profiling, disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates, and biased apprehension tactics such as stop-and-frisk work to make black immigrants especially vulnerable to draconian immigration enforcement tactics.

As a result, more than 20 percent of all noncitizens who face deportation on criminal grounds are black, and black people are ultimately deported at a higher rate. To put it in context — in 2015, 11 percent of total convicted-criminal removals were for “Priority 2” criminals, which include immigrants convicted of three or more misdemeanor offenses. If Okoumou had not already been naturalized, the current federal proceedings for her act of civil disobedience would have transformed into a referendum on her legal residency in this country.

At the apex of the St. George’s neighborhood in Staten Island that Okoumou calls home lies a ferry terminal — it’s the only free way in which the borough is connected to the greater New York City area. The 25-minute ride boasts “postcard-perfect views” of Liberty Island, and it is indeed idyllic — on a clear blue day, the silhouette of Lady Liberty stands prominently on the foreground of an unvarnished skyline, a proud representation of romanticized American ideals. As Patricia Okoumou sat at the hem of liberty’s garment, the contrast was obvious: On a day when approximately 20,000 tourists planned on traversing the inner workings of the structure, celebrating the famous lines of The New Colossus Sonnet engraved at its base — give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free — we were reminded that in that same sonnet, Lady Liberty is called “Mother of Exiles.” As the rights of those exiles are chipped away, it is activists who ensure that we all hear dissonance between projected American ideals and their execution in policy . In one defiant step, Okoumou did just that — and reminded us that in the sea of thousands of families at the mercy of oppressive and unjust policies, both at the U.S.-Mexico border and all other ports of entry, are many black faces, whose stories cannot be ignored in the fight for a just and humane immigration system.

Patricia Okoumou and the Dual Threat to Black Immigrants