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The hurdles Black immigrants face to drive in the U.S.


Black immigrants to the U.S. have been called the country's invisible immigrants. They often have unique circumstances that aren't always at the center of national discussions about immigration, and their numbers are on the rise. Today, 1 in 10 Black Americans was born outside the U.S. And for the first time, the greatest share of Black immigrants lives in the South. NPR's Leah Donnella spent months speaking with members of Tennessee's Black immigrant communities about their journeys to the South and their accompanying triumphs and challenges. One of those challenges is getting from one place to another. Here's Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: From the moment Edwin Musafiri (ph) arrived in the U.S., he said people had a lot of questions for him.

EDWIN MUSAFIRI: You're from Africa? Yeah. Like, Africa? You know, you said Africa? Yes. How is the food? You guys see giraffes (laughter)?

DONNELLA: Musafiri is from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia and a city of more than three million people. And in June of 2022, when he moved to Memphis, he said it wasn't all that different.

MUSAFIRI: It's 70% like the place I came from.

DONNELLA: There was one big difference, though. In Memphis, his movement was a lot more constrained because of one simple factor - transportation.

MUSAFIRI: To go to work, buy stuff around, you need to drive.

DONNELLA: Musafiri didn't know how. And while that hadn't been a constraint for him before, in Memphis, it became a huge frustration. He had to call for a ride every time he wanted to do something simple, like go grocery shopping or run errands, and...

MUSAFIRI: I had a job.

DONNELLA: Musafiri worked at Amazon first, then at DHL.

MUSAFIRI: But the job I really wanted - I needed a car.

DONNELLA: Musafiri is not alone. In many places, having a driver's license and access to a car determines a lot - what job you're able to hold, what time of day you can go out and, yes, when you can go grocery shopping. But for certain communities, the barriers to getting a driver's license are especially complex, even as the need is extraordinarily high. And Black immigrants face specific challenges that can make driving risky but choosing not to drive economically and socially debilitating, especially in a city like Memphis.

ISAAC JAMES: That's something that I have firsthand experience in.

DONNELLA: That's Isaac James. James is the DEI officer at the nonprofit Refugee Empowerment Program. That job involves a lot of different roles, but one of the most surprising - driver's ed teacher. Quick backstory - in 2014, there was a group of new refugee families connected to Refugee Empowerment Program. They all found jobs, but they didn't drive.

JAMES: But they found somebody that worked with them that would be able to take them there and bring them back as long as they paid gas.

DONNELLA: Except this person wouldn't always show up at the end of the shift. That was the night shift, by the way. So when they would get done work at 3, 4, 5 in the morning...

JAMES: I would have to wake up to go get them, and that hurt me.

DONNELLA: Not the waking up part, he said - the fact that people in vulnerable situations were getting exploited. So eventually James made a decision. He was going to teach that family and people like them how to drive themselves.

JAMES: Because I was so infuriated by what I just saw.

DONNELLA: But James quickly realized that teaching people the driving itself - that would be the easy part.

JAMES: Because if you're driving a car, you don't need anybody else to tell you to turn left or to turn right. That becomes sort of second nature.

DONNELLA: The hard part - everything else. While James' students focus on adjusting their mirrors, he's thinking about all the other stuff that goes along with getting behind the wheel, like what to do if you get pulled over, how high stakes that interaction can be if you're Black or someone who doesn't speak English or both. The language issue has been particularly sticky. The written portion of the Tennessee driver's test is offered in just five languages, compared to 10 or 21 in neighboring states. And in Tennessee, if you speak a language that's not on the list, your options are limited. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are tens of thousands of Tennesseans who speak African languages not on the test, and more than 30,000 people speak Arabic.

The Arabic-speaking community has been particularly vocal about their frustrations, which has created some political momentum. In 2022, a bill was introduced in Tennessee State Senate to provide interpreters for non-English speakers trying to get a driver's license. But that bill failed, and it's unclear when there will be another. A bill isn't the only way to get a language added to the test. We reached out to the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and so far, neither has commented on which department is ultimately responsible for the decision to add new languages. So for now, the barriers remain. But for many, getting around without a car is just not feasible. Andrew Guthrie is a professor at the University of Memphis. He studies transportation, and he says...

ANDREW GUTHRIE: The degree of sort of transit inaccessibility in Memphis really is exceptional.

DONNELLA: For one thing, the city is incredibly spread out. For another, he says, Memphis area Transit Authority is seriously underfunded. In 2019, their annual budget was about $59 million.

GUTHRIE: And when you have that little money, it's very, very hard to get service on the street.

DONNELLA: For a lot of people, those transit issues turn into economic ones. In Memphis, as of 2012, median income for people who relied on public transportation was less than half of that for people who drove to work. So what do people do? Guthrie says many limit where they go. Some folks walk and bike, which can be dangerous, and...

GUTHRIE: There are actually fairly complex informal transportation networks that will spring up.

DONNELLA: Like what Musafiri was relying on in his early days or what James was a part of.

JAMES: So the challenge for the communities we serve is, yes, the law says that I can't drive without a license, but the city and the society that I'm in doesn't provide me reliable transportation. And so I'm between a rock and a hard place, right?

DONNELLA: Here's Isaac James from Refugee Empowerment Program again.

JAMES: If I do drive, I have the possibility to retain work. I can take myself to doctor appointments. I can take my kids to school. But there is this threat of if I do get pulled over - right? - what will the law do with me?

DONNELLA: That's a tough decision for anyone, but it hits certain communities differently. Driving without a license is a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee. That means that for U.S. citizens, it can result in fines or jail time. For non-citizens, it could be used in justifications for removal. Nationally, Black Americans are 20% more likely to be pulled over by the police for traffic stops than white Americans. And Black immigrants are disproportionately likely to be deported because of contact with police, which means that Black immigrants have a lot to keep in mind when weighing whether to get behind the wheel. It's a reality that became even more present for many in Memphis in January with the widely publicized death of Tyre Nichols. So, yes, Isaac James wants to teach his students how to drive, but he doesn't want to sugarcoat the realities they may face.

JAMES: In those sessions, it's being honest and vulnerable. My goal is to equip people with the knowledge and the skill set to be able to handle the road. But I also need to prepare them for what the law might do. They are newcomers who want to contribute to making Memphis greater and better.

DONNELLA: Which brings us back to Musafiri. Over the summer, he became one of James' students, and he passed the test.

MUSAFIRI: So as soon as I got my car, I switched jobs.

DONNELLA: Another big change - in September, Musafiri's parents and siblings joined him in Memphis, and he decided to give them driving lessons. He said his dad is pretty good.

MUSAFIRI: My elder brother is good, too. Then the issue is with my young sisters.

DONNELLA: Musafiri says they still need a little work making turns, but at least he knows that they're moving in the right direction. Leah Donnella, NPR News, Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE MAHALIA SONG, "LETTER TO UR EX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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