Houston, Nigerians and the American Dream

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By Anthony Akaeze

I SAW the headline on a bright evening in a news flash from an online newspaper while checking my phone at a shop on Bissonnet street, Houston, Texas, in mid May.  Further online check  confirmed it to be true: The United States consulate in Nigeria had indefinitely suspended its drop box visa application. A statement from the U.S Embassy and Consulate in Nigeria, with the headline, “Indefinite Suspension of “Dropbox” Process for Renewals,” informs that “effective at the close of business May 14, 2019, the U.S Mission to Nigeria is indefinitely suspending interview waivers for renewals,  otherwise known as the “Dropbox” process.”

While the news seemed to be a confirmation of tightening visa rules I had heard from some Nigerians in Houston and Lagos I spoke to in the last three months I had been in Houston, more news was to come. A twitter message from another Nigerian online medium early this month, revealed that Nigerians were now to submit their social media contacts for visa applications to the US. Before this disclosure, I had watched a programme on a Nigerian TV station, TVC  where one of the four man panel said that many Nigerians had failed to return to Nigeria after travelling to  the US and that, that accounted for the US decision to suspend the drop box option. Pulse, an online medium, citing information from the Department of Homeland Security, (DHS), in mid June, revealed that a “total of 29,723 Nigerian immigrants who travelled to the US in 2018 overstayed their visas.”

The latest social media requirement  left me thinking, as even before now, a journalist friend had sent me a stamped passport of a supposed Nigerian, who recently arrived the US, with ‘No AOS/EOS’ on it. Accompanying words to the passport state that ‘No AOS/EOS’  means no adjustment of status or extension of stay in the US.

Finally, I thought, Donald Trump is winning! The son of an immigrant grandfather in the U.S, was having his way, and what a ‘storm’ it was creating in the Nigerian community  in Houston. Though I would later get to learn that the new social media requirement was not restricted to Nigeria, the worry and frenzy the drop box decision was causing among Nigerians  in Houston was palpable. Houston, someone told me, days after I arrived the city, is mini Nigeria. “When you walk the streets, you will hear people speaking Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa (three Nigerian major languages),” she said.  I would get to confirm this as I met not a few Yoruba and Igbo speakers but it wasn’t just Nigerians. I also met people  from Ghana, Cameroun, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Gabon, Rwanda, Liberia and Tanzania, and others  from South America and Asia in this city of 2.3 million estimated people, according to the World Population Review. One likely reason Nigerians are drawn to Houston or the state of Texas, another Nigerian told me, is its relatively hot climate that is similar to Nigeria’s.

Someone at bus stop
Someone at bus stop

As I thought about the U.S visa situation following the latest social media requirement, I reflected upon the reason people choose to abscond from their country, as the figure from Pulse shows, and wondered what they really travel to do. Given my knowledge of the socio-economic conditions in Nigeria, a gifted country ran aground by military and political rulers over the years, many are likely in search of succour elsewhere. Decades of inept and visionless leadership, coupled with greed and corruption by the ruling class has left a significant majority of an estimated 180 million people poor and hungry and without hope. Escaping from Nigeria therefore,  for as long as I can remember, is an aspiration, and travelling to the world’s greatest nation, as the U.S is considered by many to be,  is an achievement. I reflected on how easy it is for people to relocate and adjust to life elsewhere. Since arriving Houston, I had been interested in how Nigerians and Africans live. The city, according to the World Population Review, boasts of some “400,000 illegal aliens,” which includes Africans. But it’s not all about undocumented immigrants as a significant portion of Nigerians have, over the years, naturalized or acquired US citizenship. A June 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute notes that there are “approximately 376,000 Nigerian immigrants and their children (the first and second generations)” in the United States and that “Today, Nigerian immigrants account for about 0.6 percent of the United States overall foreign-born population, about half of whom arrived before 2000. Nigerians were more likely to be naturalized US citizens than the U.S foreign-born population overall: 52 percent versus 44 percent…”

In terms of geographic distribution, the report reveals that, “with about 40,000 Nigeria-born residents, Texas had the largest population of Nigerian immigrants  of any state in the country…Houston, Washington, DC, and Atlanta areas each had Nigeria-born populations of approximately 20,000.”

While the exploit of some of them and their wards are occasionally celebrated in the media, few chronicle the contribution of people without legal documents who must work to survive.  Is the work schedule of this group particularly,  in anyway different from what I was aware of?

In 2009, when I first visited  the U.S, I met Nigerians in Washington, DC and Maryland, some of who revealed  their worklife, in past and present times,  in my interactions with them. Some held three jobs, others two, at different times, to be able to get by in “God’s Own Country.”

In another trip to the US last year, a Chicago-based Nigerian told me:  “America is all about work, work, work.”

While the idea of working two or more jobs or shifts may not apply to everyone, his view and that of others before him, offered a clue to how immigrants sustained themselves  in  America, which may  be no different from what obtains in other foreign lands. Prior to my discussion with the Chicago-based Nigerian, I had interacted with an American who, in apparent reference to the prowess of America, said, “We (Americans) work hard.” Whether he intended it or not, there’s a cockiness to his words that I sense and have come to  wonder whether he refers to only bonafide American citizens or immigrants and undocumented persons as well. Given what I know, to exclude Africans from the hardworking group would be unfair, as many of them, from what I learnt 10 years ago, literally work round the clock. They work hard, probably twice or thrice more than Americans do.

Arriving Houston, I met and interacted with Nigerians and Africans of various hue. Questions about how they get by in America, or why they chose to migrate from Africa,  elicits for some, feelings of regret about the conditions back home. Some of them in Houston work in places they consider utterly demanding or too low for their qualification.

One Nigerian, who works in a factory in Katy area of Houston,  a work described by one of his African colleagues as “deadly” because it requires standing and working 10 or 12 hours save for a break period of 50 minutes or one hour, said he has to continue with the work because he has “no better choice.”

Another Nigerian, a master’s degree holder in Engineering, who told me he left his job in Nigeria to come to the U.S with no intention of returning to his country, works in a car washing company as a short term plan as he bids to regularize his stay. I asked him, “Is there any special reason why you are staying back in America? You have a good job in Nigeria?”

He replied, “It’s because of my children. I don’t want them to remain in a condition of unemployment and insecurity (in Nigeria). I want them to come and grow up here. If it’s about me, I’m okay. It’s about their future,” he said, adding: “You can see the way I’ve degraded myself (working in a car washing company.) It’s about the children.”

For all that’s said about its prospect, surviving in America isn’t easy. Though the country, as the Chicago-based Nigerian put it,  is basically about work, it could be less stressful for undocumented immigrants if one has a work permit that would enable one secure less tasking or better paying jobs. Having such legal document, could, for some, clear the path to obtaining the green card (permanent residency) or American citizenship and for this, many are willing to go extra mile to acquire it. Among the options of achieving both is marriage. A Colombian told me he knows some Nigerian men who arrived the US at different times and ended up marrying American women and that way, became American citizens. But it’s not always rosy as many  Nigerians, I learnt,  have had their fingers burnt that way. I met one of them, a man likely in his 30s in April. He told me that his marriage with his American born wife has all but packed up and that they are both slugging it out in court in a divorce suit initiated by her. He blames the problem in their marriage in part, to the powers bestowed on a woman by the American system. I heard many cases like that, of love gone sour, blamed on the “excessive power” of American women. According to a source, whose identity is protected, such is the power of a woman in America that, when she makes a complaint to the police about a man, the accused could, in some instances end up detained or jailed. “When there’s a complaint by a woman, the police will ask her, how do you want us to deal with him. But if it’s the man that called in the police, the police will want to settle the matter between the man and his wife without people knowing about it,” he told me. Coming from patriarchal societies as many African countries are known to be, some Africans in US appear handicapped by such female power.

Not every marriage appear driven by love though. Some were consummated on the altar of dough. I heard many cases of desperate African immigrants who entered into financial agreement or contract with American women or men for marriage or the purpose of obtaining green card/citizenship but ended up shortchanged. There are stories of American men and women who simply disappeared after collecting part, final or full payment for such contracts. They either suddenly developed cold feet midway, decided against continuing after disagreement or quarrel with their ‘partner’ or never had the intention of fulfilling their own part of the bargain. Whichever, a racket in that regard appears to have long evolved particularly among black American women, a source told me. In some cases, it’s not just cash that is lost, properties also develop wings. In early May, I was told the story of an American woman in a city outside Houston who bolted with the car of her would be Nigerian husband and hadn’t  been seen since.

It is, however, not only Africans that are guilty of such arrangement. A source, choosing to remain anonymous, told me that people of different nationalities are involved and that U.S authorities are aware of the trend. And watching an American TV station weeks ago, it was reported that a “sham wedding scheme” has been “busted” as US citizens were “accused of wedding Vietnamese women for money reasons.” Similarly, an online media report by ABC News in May, with the headline, “96 People charged in Texas Marriage Fraud Scheme to get Green Cards,” reveals that “nearly 100 people in Texas have been indicted on federal marriage fraud charges, in a scheme allegedly aimed at securing U.S Green Cards for Vietnamese nationals…the suspected criminal organization allegedly created 150 sham marriages in the past six years.”

Among Nigerians, American men and  women – but particularly the women – are called Akata, a word which in Igbo language, depending on the context, interpretes as a no nonsense,  wise,  strong willed-person, someone to fear. The word is common among Nigerians of diverse languages or background I met in Houston.

The female Akatas are either good or bad; they conjur feelings of admiration or fear, and woe betide you if you got involved with the bad one. Their male counterparts may come across as  smooth talking dudes, cold and calculating.

I saw Akata women of all shapes and sizes in Houston, some puffing away. Some are relatively younger women in search of help. “Can you spare me a dollar please,” one young, beautiful black girl asked me one evening at Cook, by Bissonnet Street. I would hear same or similar words in many places: bus stops, along streets, around malls, in secluded areas from men and women, some, in unsteady steps. Such solicitation, appear induced, and bring back words of an immigration officer at JFK airport in February who, in my conversation with him, after he had  subjected me to search, said: “America has a drug problem.”

It’s a statement that would occasionally ring true in my mind  as I came across people, male and  female, who seemed to have fallen by the wayside in this dream nation, owing to their love of drug or liquour. America, after all, as I would later learn in Who Wants to be a Millionaire programme  shown in one of the TV stations in Houston, is the largest consumer of cocaine in the world, which further confirms what the immigration officer told me at JFK. At a shop along Bissonnet, in a vicinity I often noticed people smoking and drinking liquor, there’s a sticker in one of the shops that appear directed at those who allow their passion for drugs or liquour get the better of them:

No shirt

No shoes

No service

Over the weeks, I have seen not a few number of drug or liquour driven people,  most of them, blacks, seemingly disoriented.

In a rather hilarious episode, one  of them, a black man likely in his 30s, one morning in mid May, at a bus stop in Bellaire Boulevard where he stood in wait for a metro bus to pick him, peeped in to say he only wanted to check the time. He back stepped and the bus moved on without him. It was the craziest, funniest thing I have seen anywhere. Another was seeing a pregnant woman in a very short gown board a bus in Bissonnet, drawing sharp rebuke from a  woman passenger with an African accent; a woman without pants in Breaswood area, another in a swim suit attire along a street at night and a vibrator that’s larger than any penis I’ve  seen. I was alerted to the vibrator by a man who drew the attention of his colleague to it. The driver of the car in which the vibrator – a sturdy plaintain sized image – was spotted, to me, seemed neither here nor there. I couldn’t place his sex, owing to his looks! He’s possibly a transgender. I saw a number of such people in town, and some others, including seemingly homeless persons at bus stops and elsewhere, and a beautiful, excitable woman, who, meeting me at a bus stop days ago, said she’s 63, and in love with a man almost half her age, but wants the “total package” in a man, not just the handsome or fun type; someone who loves children and would not spank them.

As she spoke and I nodded to her words, more out of courtesy, I was unsure whether her remarks, without my prompting, were liquor or drug induced.

 

Anthony Akaeze, an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author, reports for Realnews from Houston, Texas

– June 18, 2019 @ 13:39 GMT |

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