Names are Important
Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series
At the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Annual Conference in 2019 (AC19), during our annual meeting of the African American Interest Group (AAIG), we decided to change its name to African Diaspora Interest Group (ADIG). As the current leader of the group, I had long thought about the backgrounds of the lawyers who usually attended the annual AAIG meetings. I realized that some of us were more recent immigrants from Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. And some of us, like me, were descendants of Africans who had been forcibly brought to the U.S. to be slaves. We were all part of the African Diaspora, but were not necessarily African Americans in the traditional sense of the term.
The term African Diaspora refers to the many communities of people of African descent dispersed throughout the world as a result of historic movements. The majority of African dispersal resulted from the Arab and Atlantic slave trades – two of the largest forced migrations in history. An estimated 11 million Africans from Western and Central Africa were sent to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade, and an additional estimated 10 to 80 million from the Arabic slave trades, also known as the East African or Indian Ocean slave trades. Despite popular modern association almost solely with what is now the United States of America, it is believed by some scholars that only about 5% of Africans forced to become slaves came to North America, while 95% went to Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Like “African Americans”, other Africans in the Diaspora (e.g., Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Costa Ricans, Afro-Hondurans, etc.) share a common history of subjugation and oppression, and even today face challenges in their countries.
Through the years, AILA AAIG has sought to discuss topics of interest to our community. At AC18 in San Francisco, we featured two speakers. One was AILA member, Professor Richard Boswell of University of California Hastings College of the Law. Boswell is a pioneer in immigration clinical education and has written 10 books and numerous articles. His book, Essentials of Immigration Law, is published by AILA and I used it as my textbook when I taught the first immigration law course at Mississippi College School of Law in 2006. Boswell is black and he believes that his ancestors were captured in Africa and landed in North America to work as slaves.
Also at AC18 we heard from Devonte Jackson, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). BAJI was founded in April 2006 in response to the massive outpouring of opposition from immigrants and their supporters to the repressive immigration bills under consideration by the U.S. Congress. BAJI was organized by black activists in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area. It educates and engages African American and other black immigrant communities to organize and advocate for racial, social, and economic justice.
At our AC19 meeting, AAIG turned our attention to Haiti, the world’s first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state. In 1804, Haiti gained independence from France and now is the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the U.S. Last June in Orlando, FL, Attorney Vanette Augustin gave a rousing presentation about her work with the Greater Haitian American Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Haitians and Haitian Americans. Augustin was born in The Bahamas, the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the United States who came to the U.S. as a child. She is fluent in the Haitian Creole language. Her practice in Orlando includes family, immigration, wills, and litigation law. Augustin discussed, among other things, Haitian Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and her effective advocacy with local Florida officials on behalf of Haitian migrants.
The second presentation at our AC19 AAIG meeting focused on office practice management. Two AILA members with more than 30 years of combined immigration law experience, Patricia Minikon of Maryland and Grace Gardiner of Florida (originally from Trinidad), shared insights about challenges that black solo immigration law practitioners face. I served as the panel moderator. Minikon and Gardiner gave excellent overviews regarding issues they have faced in their many years of practice including those in hiring and marketing, and shared some solutions that worked for them. They gave us really useful and outstanding advice.
When I posed the question to the AAIG group about changing our name to African Diaspora Interest Group, I laid out my case. We were all black, but not all of us were American citizens. Some were born on the African continent, and others in the Caribbean, and in Central and South America. One member of Caribbean ancestry even lived in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and commuted to the U.S. every day to lead the immigration at a law school’s clinic in Detroit, Michigan, my hometown. We discussed the name change to ADIG and came to the conclusion that it was the right move for our group. One member from South America was so positively affected by the change that she approached me after the meeting to discuss her deeply conflicted feelings about being called an African American. She told me she finally felt included in the organization after learning what African Diaspora meant and knowing that she was part of it. And, so, we are now called African Diaspora Interest Group. By recognizing our histories and ancestry, we are truly “seeing” each other for the first time.
AILA Members: membership in our group is open and all are welcome. You may sign up to be on our list serve via your personal profile page at aila.org.