by Tiffany Thomas
Recently, I got on a Manhattan-bound 5 train at Flatbush Avenue and struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. She looked over my shoulder at my AM New York newspaper with the photo of the couple who killed 14 and wounded more than 20 in the San Bernardino rampage. And I barely had to ask her what she thought.
She angrily denounced the idea of letting Syrian refugees or Muslims into the U.S. “I hope that the government will cease to consider allowing those people because their motives and intentions are screwed up and you never know who you are truly sharing your space with,” she told me.
This was a few days before Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and his demand for law enforcement officials to monitor mosques.
My subway mates’ anti-immigrant diatribe surprised me. She, like me, immigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean. I came here when I was nine years old and I think that while everyone can have a different opinion, we as a society shouldn’t discriminate against a group of people because of profiling or their religious beliefs.
President Obama said repeatedly that Syrian immigrants, and others, must go through a rigorous vetting process before they enter the U.S. even though 41.3 million immigrants already call the U.S. home. And I’m willing to accept that.
We live in a nation and a city of immigrants. And that’s why her rant seemed strange to me.
Look at Brooklyn, where 37.5 percent of the population was born outside the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We don’t have exact numbers on the number of Caribbean-Americans in Brooklyn but the Census says more than 3.9 million of us live in the U.S.
And a report called “The Newest New Yorkers,” by the New York City Planning Department, found that 19 percent of new immigrants to the city come from the Caribbean, and you can find many Muslim Caribbean-Americans in that group.
Still, my fellow Caribbean-Americans seem hostile to new immigrants, especially Syrian refugees.
For this post, I set out to have conversations with people in the Caribbean-American community and 30-year-old Anthony Jones sounded typical of a lot of people I know. He left his family in Jamaica in 2010. “The government made it difficult for me to live and support my family,” he said.
So he works as a construction worker in New York, sends money back for his wife and kids. But he talked like an American who wants to protect his country when he said, “The U.S. is always involved in other countries’ business and can’t protect its own backyard, yet they are considering allowing more people that we are not too sure about.”
Sophia Hamilton, from Barbados, works as a nanny. She worried that “the country is on the brink of a terrorist attack and we aren’t safe.” Yet she did take a softer view when I asked about humanitarian concerns.
Hamilton mused a bit and said she might consider opening our doors to Syrian immigrants, “especially the kids that lack safety and have lost their family.”
But then her thoughts took a different turn and she became protective. “America is the best place to house refugees but we as immigrants are already getting the bad end of the stick. Just imagine when more people come, the more we as immigrants will be placed on the back burner and considered a threat,” she said.
Yet immigration attorney Brian Figeroux, who works with new immigrants in Brooklyn, thinks we should slow down the rush to judgment and accept refugees. “We will always have differences of opinion, but what we want is a standard and that standard is humanitarian.”
Still my conversations remain in my head and they sound an awful lot like, “We’re here now. Just close the doors.”