Barriers to Voting for West Africans
Like with other communities, there are a myriad of barriers, both direct and indirect, that can affect the ability for West Africans to have acccess to the polls. According to Amaha Kassa, founder and Executive Director of African Communities Together, “respondents unanimously agree that levels of civic engagement among African immigrants are currently low, and the political influence of African immigrant communities is minimal.”
Voter I.D. Laws
West African immigrants, like other often marginalized groups, feel the repercussions of voter I.D. laws.
These laws create significant obstacles to people who don’t have a driver’s license, have errors on their birth certificates, and/or immigrated to the U.S. and then became citizens.
Actual voter fraud is an extremely rare problem. Between 2002 and 2005, only 40 voters out of the 197 million votes cast for federal candidates were indicted for voter fraud, and only 26 of those indictments resulted in convictions, according to a Department of Justice study.
Defenders of voter ID laws assert that there should be no problems registering.
The problem of “hidden privilege” is very important here; online comments and articles supporting harsher voter I.D. laws usually center on, “I got my I.D. with no problems, it must be just as easy for everyone else.”
Lack of Citizenship
Overall, West African immigrants are less likely to have American citizenship than other immigrant groups. This is partly because many are only planning to stay temporarily, either to complete higher education degrees or to earn enough money to start a business at home, while many others are here as refugees or asylum-seekers.
Others, however, are planning to stay for the long term.
Under U.S. law, an immigrant must prove that they have had permanent residence (a green card) for five years, though asylum seekers can count up to one year prior to getting a green card toward this total, and refugees can count all time spent in the U.S. before getting a green card (though they are required to apply for a green card one year after arriving).
There has been a movement in several states, including Minnesota, to push for voting rights for non-citizen immigrants, a practice which has been ruled as constitutional and which has a long precedent in U.S. history.
Uncertain Legal Status
Some African immigrant advocacy groups have suggested that one reason so many West Africans are employed well below their degree qualifications is a concern over their uncertain legal status; either they are undocumented, or they are concerned that even with the right documents officials might find something wrong and deport them.
Even for those who do have documentation, many are reluctant to request access to social services that are not specifically marketed as immigrant-only, out of concern that they will be denied access as non-citizens.
Even West African immigrants who come from educated backgrounds often find themselves trapped in low-paying jobs, due to difficulty in transferring credentials and discrimination in the labor market.
Because many of these immigrants have above-average qualifications, the fact that they hold below-average jobs suggests a significant degree of under-employment.
West African immigrants tend to have labor force participation rates above the national average, but, again, often in low-paying jobs.
Overall, recent immigrants to Minnesota may leave the Twin Cities and move to rural areas, where they can find stable but poor-quality jobs in agriculture and meatpacking.
Welfare programs for immigrants suffered repeated cuts even before the 2008 recession, often due to accusations that immigrants are taking money without giving back, even though the main beneficiaries of these programs are the immigrants’ U.S.-born children.
This discrimination is especially pronounced in rural areas where immigrants seek low-skill work (see section above), as they often find themselves in racial segregation, such as in schools, neighborhoods, or public facilities, that is labelled as such because it is a fact, rather than the result of legal requirements like Jim Crow laws jobs and neighborhoods surrounded by white, homogeneous, and generally conservative locals.
Many West Africans report that they have faced discrimination related to fears of Ebola.
Scientifically speaking, Ebola can only be contracted from direct contact with a person showing symptoms, but fears over Ebola seem to be developing into discrimination against West Africans.