In an increasingly racially diverse United States, Caribbean migrants and Americans of Caribbean descent are without an official means of classification and frequently dismissed as a marketplace or voting bloc.
Frequently lumped in as “African-Americans” or “black Americans,” Caribbeans actually comprise a diverse array of cultures, races, religions and languages unto themselves and differ in many ways from “mainstream” African-Americans.
Indeed, “Caribbean” is a rather amorphous term since it encompasses a broad geographical region. For the purposes of this discussion, we will regard Caribbean migrants as those U.S. residents and citizens who trace their ancestry to the islands of the Caribbean Sea, plus the nations on the northern coast of South America, as well as the Central American nation of Belize.
Numbering conservatively at some 3 million by the U.S. Census, or just over 9 percent of the total foreign-born population, Caribbean immigrants may be black, white, Latino, East Indian, Chinese, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc, thus it is quite difficult to make broad generalizations of this unique group.
Including long-settled migrants, the total Caribbean population and those of Caribbean descent in the U.S. may be as high as 22 million.
The majority, about 70 percent of Caribbeans and their descendants, live in either New York or Florida, with significant communities found in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington, D.C.,among other states.
Cubans, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinidadians and Guyanese account for the largest Caribbean groups in the country at present.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Caribbean population in the U.S. has surged more than 17-fold over the past half-century. But three-quarters of Caribbeans in the country arrived during the last two decades of the 20th century.
Eric Holder, Shirley Chisholm, Godfrey Cambridge, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier Patrick Ewing and Colin Powell are among the many Caribbeans who have gained fame and success in the United States.
However, now in the 21st century, seeking to establish their own specific identities, some Caribbean people in the U.S. are frustrated by U.S. Census forms which seem to ignore their origins.
Felicia Persaud, the CEO of Hard Beat Communications in New York, led an effort in 2008 to get recognition for a Caribbean origin category on U.S. Census forms. The measure received support through a bill in the House and Senate but has since stalled there. And despite a grassroots effort to get Caribbean people counted in the 2010 Census, the true count of Caribbeans remains a mystery.
"As Caribbean people, we have our own identity," Audrey Brown, a Jamaican-American in Florida, told the Sun Sentinel paper. "Although we're all Caribbean people, we fall under different spectrums."
Correct identification is crucial to Caribbeans receiving proportionate amounts of state and federal aid, for schools, hospitals and senior citizen centers, among other community services.
“Every 1,000 people that’s undercounted is equivalent to $1.2 million that’s lost in federal dollars,’’ Hulbert James, chair of the South Florida Caribbean American Complete Count Committee, told the South Florida Times.
“When cities are hurting for dollars, every dollar counts.’’
Caribbean immigrants in general are better off economically than the broader immigrant population, boasting somewhat higher rates of educational attainment (i.e., number of high school graduates) and employment in services or white-collar jobs.
But it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many undocumented aliens from the Caribbean currently reside illegally in the U.S. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated there were about 350,000 such illegal aliens in March 2009, accounting for about 3.2 percent of all unauthorized immigrants. If this figure is accurate, it would suggest that one in 10 Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. are unauthorized. (Still, the estimated number of undocumented Mexicans is significantly higher.)
Moreover, Caribbeans are far more likely to become naturalized U.S. citizens or obtain green cards than other immigrant communities. The Migration Policy Institute reported that between 2000 and 2009, nearly1.1 million foreign-born Caribbeans became lawful permanent residents. About 55.4 percent of foreign-born Caribbeans are naturalized U.S. citizens, versus a figure of 43.7 percent of the overall foreign-born population.
As American citizens, Caribbeans take a strong interest in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
“Caribbeans are overwhelmingly Democratic and support Barack Obama,” said Persaud, a prominent Caribbean-American activist and immigration columnist.
She cautions, however, that enthusiasm for Obama has declined dramatically since 2008, due partially to the fact that the current administration has deported more illegal aliens than any before him.
“Obama has definitely been a disappointment to Caribbean-Americans as with so many other groups. However, we are hopeful he will enact comprehensive immigration reform should he gain a second term,” she said.
Persaud suggests that Obama has likely taken an aggressive stance on illegal aliens in order to appease conservatives in the country who would be impressed by his "get tough" policy.
Nonetheless, Obama and the Democrats present a far more attractive option than Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
“Although we will hold Obama’s feet to the fire during his second term, we recognize that he is a much better choice than the GOP candidates,” she noted.
Persaud was unimpressed by the Republican National Convention trotting out minority members, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, to make highly publicized speeches.
“If you looked at the crowd of delegates on the floor at the Republican convention, one mostly saw white faces,” she said.
“Having minorities speak at the podium was more like window-dressing. At least the delegates who attended the Democratic convention represented a more accurate cross-section of contemporary American society.”
While Caribbeans and black Americans share some cultural and political values (including overwhelming support for Obama), there are some sharp distinctions that must be drawn.
“Immigration is the key political issue that Caribbeans are concerned about, especially in this election cycle,” Persaud explained. “That is not much of a concern at all for African-Americans.”
She indicated that, along with the federal government’s aggressive expulsion of illegal immigrants, visa rules for entry into the U.S. have been tightened in recent years.
“Immigration from the Caribbean to both the U.S. and the U.K. has slowed down to a trickle,” she said. “It is even becoming difficult for people to get ordinary student and tourist visas anymore. Consequently, we are now seeing more Caribbean people seeking to move to Canada, where immigration laws remain more welcoming.”
Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. also provide much-needed financial assistance to their homeland -- on the order of $8 billion in remittances annually. That figure is about half the annual GDP of Jamaica and four times the yearly economic output of Guyana.
However, Caribbean-Americans certainly do not form a monolithic entity nor does it move and speak in an uniform fashion. In fact, given its deep diversity, there remain serious conflicts and divisions within some in this group.
Consider Persaud’s native Guyana, the only English-speaking country on the northern coast of South America. Guyana has long been polarized according to racial lines between people of African and Indian descent.
“This ethnic and racial rivalry has, in some respects, been transferred to the U.S.,” she said. “For example, among the diaspora in New York City, Afro-Guyanese tend to live in Brooklyn, while Indo-Guyanese are concentrated in Southeastern Queens.”
Persaud, who is herself a mixed-race woman, suggests that the racial attitudes of the older generation are now gradually slipping away.
“Despite this separateness, we are now witnessing interracial dating and marriages between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese, both in New York and in the country itself,” she said. “This would have been unthinkable 30-plus years ago.”
In addition, relations between Caribbean and black Americans have also been fraught with tensions and misunderstandings.
“Some African-Americans do not realize that we [Caribbeans] have lived in this country since slavery and that we struggled with racism and participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s,” Persaud said. “In the absence of this historical perspective, some black Americans believe we are taking advantage of civil rights gains without having had made any sacrifices.”
As for the near-future, Persaud strikes a rather pessimistic note.
“I think racism and discrimination against immigrants has become even worse in recent years, in tandem with the economic recession,” she said. “Speaking out against immigration has become encouraged in some circles as we see more and more states enacting tougher and discriminatory immigration laws. Even if Obama wins the next election, despite his empathy for us, I don’t believe things well get better anytime soon.”