I didn’t grow up in a household where it mattered who was President of the United States. My parents rarely spoke about politics, but at my earliest recollection, I knew that Jimmy Carter was “good” and Ronald Reagan was “bad.”
It wasn’t until the nomination and election of Barack Obama that my relatives, both in the United States and in Jamaica, stood elated at the idea of a leader who exemplified our political ideals and could perhaps understand the familial implications of immigration and naturalization. Even though President Obama is unequivocally American born, having a Kenyan father and a mother who exposed him to diverse cultures, to us made him more sympathetic to the immigrant cause.
First let’s start by dispelling the misconception that immigration only affects those living South of the U.S. border. Some of us first generation Americans with freshly planted roots also worry about the policies and laws that adversely affect our Caribbean and African family members and friends. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Survey, there are nearly four million immigrants from the Caribbean living in the United States and more than 90 percent hail from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.
At one time, the idea of migration used to include a narrative of hard work, perseverance, and overcoming struggle. Everyone’s goal was the same—to make a better life here than what you had at home. Even before 9/11, the George W. Bush administration is partially responsible for changing that narrative making immigration synonymous with criminality, unemployment and threats to national security.By the time President Obama came into office, that error in thinking stuck and it’s been almost impossible to break. His administration has made efforts to change it, but his baby steps were never fully given the opportunity to become leaps and bounds.
There is, however, no better example of changing the rhetoric and making moves towards progress than in the 2014 executive decision to end the antiquated policies of the Cold War era and restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. In less than two years, the U.S. embassy has re-opened in Havana, discussions and implementation of policies for the safe, orderly and legal migration of Cubans to the U.S. have begun, and the President, First Family, celebrities and other Americans have visited the island for the first time in more than 50 years. Educational, religious and humanitarian projects are in the works; an indication that the first wave of healing and helping us all understand each other’s diverse attributes has begun. With the death of former Cuban president Fidel Castro and a new president-elect, I can only hope that these substantial changes remain.
Cuba was a momentous move, but President Obama has made other concessions to improve relations with other Caribbean nations. His visit to Jamaica in April 2015 was the first time a U.S. President came to the island since Reagan in 1982. His talks with then-Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and other Caribbean leaders sparked the hope that the U.S. would become a more significant global economic partner. Under this President, ongoing signs of U.S. diplomatic and financial support have also encouraged leaders in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, leaving those of us with ties to these countries believing there is still hope in change.
All but invisible to those in previous administrations, President Obama made those of us with heritage and ties to these island nations feel seen, heard and noticed. We may not be on the dance floor, but at least we’ve finally been invited to the party. His unwavering commitment to immigration and international relations in the Caribbean is only one small reason why I am so grateful for President Obama. His poise, grace, intelligence, and humanity are a few of the other reasons and why I have taught my 2-year-old niece to recognize his photo and to say his name. I don’t want her to grow up not understanding the incredible significance he’s had for our country and our people.
It may take years, perhaps decades, but my belief is that those who criticized Obama’s economic, immigration, healthcare, education and housing programs and policies (and the list can go on) will have a wake up call. It will come like that feeling when you’re asleep, dreaming of drowning and you suddenly awake, gasping for air. You open your eyes to realize how lucky you once were because now you see what extraordinary president this man was for our country. There is no doubt that he has solidified his place in history despite all the forces that have galvanized against him. Did he have all the answers? Did he fix all our problems? Of course not, but as he departs, ask yourself, are we really worse off than when he started?
And so, where do we go from here? Many of us will exhale a collective sigh of disgust on January 20, 2017, anxious from the xenophobic threats and misogynistic intimidation that still looms over immigrants, women, the disabled and people of color with the new president. Leading this country, we fear that Donald Trump will keep his promise to deport up to three million undocumented immigrants who “have criminal records” almost as soon as he lifts his hand from that Bible at his inauguration. We have a president who sees nothing in shades of gray—just the black and white of an issue that desperately requires humanization in order to truly be understood.
Wendy L. Wilson is an award-winning journalist and a former editor at Ebony, Jet and Essence magazines.