Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., approximately 575,000 (5 percent) are black—yet they make up about 10 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings. Black undocumented immigrants also are less likely to receive valuable resources and help when it comes to programs like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The cost of breaking one’s silence, then, as an undocumented black person is perilously steep—which is why actor Bambadjan Bamba has decided to reveal his immigration status.
In an exclusive interview with the Los Angeles Times, the 35-year-old The Good Place actor opens up after years of living in silence. He’s also featured in a short film from Define American, an immigrant advocacy organization. Bamba recounts his journey to the U.S. at the age of 10 after political unrest hit his home country of the Ivory Coast, and details the struggle of growing up black and undocumented.
Here are some of the highlights:
On learning about his undocumented status:
“My whole childhood was, “Hey, we’re in America. We’re trying to get asylum. There’s a war in Africa.” It wasn’t until I started applying for college that I realized that I couldn’t get financial aid. I had to have a conversation with my parents, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah … The asylum case didn’t work out, but whatever you want to do, we will support.”
I got into [the Conservatory of Film and Dramatic Arts] and they helped me pay for it. I drove yellow cabs in New York City to make the tuition and just kind of did what needed to be done. I just always knew that [acting] is what I was called to do, someway somehow. I figured if I kept working hard at it, if I keep doing the right thing, if I’m super successful, then I’ll become a citizen eventually. That hasn’t happened yet.”
On being pulled over by the police:
[Being undocumented] is like this thing you want to forget, but you keep getting reminded of. And it’s not just a simple reminder; you’re having nightmares. I have friends who had nervous breakdowns the day before they’re supposed to go see a judge. There’s a lot of fear around the issue because they criminalize you. You’re just here to go to school. Your parents can’t pay for the school. Next thing you know, you’re undocumented, and you’re a criminal, and you’re sent to jail. It’s just this spiral.
It’s a little different when you’re black and you’re an immigrant because the cop doesn’t care that you’re an immigrant at first. You’re just black. You’re dealing with all those issues. When he finds out you’re an immigrant, he’s like, “Oh, OK. I got you now.”
On the lack of support for black immigrants:
There’s also a lot of resources and organizations set up for Latino immigrants, because they’re the majority. Black immigrants really don’t have that much support ... and for people from the Caribbean or Africa, there’s a shame culture around being undocumented. No one even wants to come out and talk about it.
Since the new administration, people are scared to go to the little Jamaican restaurant because there are raids. They’re scared to take a certain street because of raids. There’s all this fear that’s being perpetuated. We just can’t be scared anymore.
Bamba is currently protected by DACA, which has been rescinded by Donald Trump’s administration and is currently awaiting renewal by Congress. He’s slated to appear in next year’s highly anticipated Black Panther movie.