My Story-Our Story

Christiana Best-Cummings

Editor’s Note: Related to this blog posting, you can access the NASW-NYC special issue of Currents “Focus on Immigrants in New York City” by clicking here.

As an immigrant, a woman, a social worker and a professor who teaches about the immigrant experience in the United States, I feel very connected to other immigrants throughout this country on many levels. And so I am keenly aware of the effects of restrictive immigration policies such as HB 87 in Georgia, HB 497 in Utah, SB 1070 in Arizona and HB 56 in Alabama. They are not only oppressive to immigrants; they are reactive, reductive responses to the complexities of the immigration issues in this country.

My mother migrated to New York City in 1969 when my sister and I  were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, leaving us at home in Grenada. As a single parent, for five years, she parented us from a distance while working three low-paying jobs to support all of us financially. She worked days, nights and weekends, taking any job that came her way to keep us sheltered, fed and clothed. During the entire time, she had two dreams: (1) to be reunited with her daughters and (2) to provide us with an opportunity to get an education so we could be self-sufficient and not subjected to the same exploitive and repressive working conditions she had to endure for so long.

Today, my mother has an Associate’s degree, my sister has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and I have a Ph.D. in Social Welfare. I am indebted to my mother for her sacrifice, endurance, work ethic and for her commitment to my sister and me. We grew up knowing that being an immigrant meant having to work hard and make sacrifices. As a result, our number one role model is our mother. My son now is on his way to realizing his dream as well–and not only does he have his dad and me as his biggest supporters, he is blessed with the support of his aunt and grandmother.

My family’s story is not unlike that of other immigrant groups that came before and after us: English, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, etc. As an immigrant, I am dedicated to help others who are faced with horrendous restrictions, such as HB 87–which forces some women to choose between being killed by their abusers or deported. If this policy had existed for the early immigrant groups that this country recruited, welcomed and supported generations ago, we wouldn’t be the country we are today. Instead of engaging in these knee-jerk responses, Americans two-, three-, four-, and five-generations removed from their ancestral migratory experience should come to the table and find solutions that work in the best interest of the country, while keeping in mind, There but by the grace of God goes my ancestor.

Historically, whenever the United States is experiencing economic difficulties, it has responded with restrictive, oppressive legislation and policies that are punitive to immigrants, especially people of color. This was evident with the slave trade of African immigrants, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 and the deportation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression (many of whom were U.S. citizens).

Yet although there has always been anti-immigrant rhetoric, policies and practices–including against the early immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe–eventually these groups have assimilated into the American society. So I ask myself, why have the protracted discrimination and punitive laws against certain groups persisted for such an extended period of time? The answer, I suspect, is that race, color and physical characteristics have prevented these new immigrants from hiding or assimilating. Even if they change their names, they can’t change their skin color, physical characteristics or their race. Immigrants today are punished twice. They are punished for being newcomers and also for their racial and physical appearance.

For these immigrants there is no melting pot. They are denied access to the American society. Every possible obstacle is put in their way when they try to adapt. I realize how fortunate my family was because at that time we arrived in New York, we were not faced with restrictive policies such as Georgia’s HB 87. It could have happened to us. I cannot stand apart from the struggle of today’s immigrant.

Reprinted with permission from MomsRising and Ms Magazine. Part of a blog carnival accompanying the “We Belong Together” women’s delegation to Georgia September 28-29, which aims to expose human rights violations brought on by Georgia’s anti-immigrant bill HB 87.


Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, Ph. D., is a manager at NYC Administration for Children Services and has over 25 years of experience in public and private child welfare.

As an immigrant, Dr. Cummings is devoted to advocating and working on behalf of immigrant families.  Her graduate work focused on the exploration of Transnational Parenting for African Caribbean women from the English-Speaking Caribbean.  This body of work was complied in a book entitled: The Long Goodbye:  Challenges of Transnational Parenting, which was published in 2009. It details Dr. Cummings’ research and analysis of the impact of transnational parenting on both children and parents.

Dr. Cummings particularly enjoys staff development and teaching. She has worked as an adjunct professor for several years at Metropolitan College; currently, she teaches a class on the immigrant experience at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in which she highlights the impact of race, gender and the economy on various immigrant group experiences in this country.

Dr. Cummings has also been in the forefront of the exploration of the impact of race and disproportionality in child welfare. She is the co-chair of the Disproportionality in Child Welfare which is a subcommittee of the New York City Social Work Consortium.  This committee has facilitated symposiums on racial dispropotionality and disparity for MSW students that have been held at various Schools of Social Work.   She is also a member of the ACS Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Diversity.

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10 Responses to My Story-Our Story

  1. Nora says:

    Dr. Best-Cummings voice of reason and personal experience contributes greatly to the discussion on immigration. I am second-generation Italian and Irish, and although my grandparents did experience prejudice when they first arrived, none of their offspring has and it is because of our skin color that we are able to assimilate. Our country is proud of our immigrant roots and we should include ALL immigrants in our pride. Thank you for this very insightful blog.

    • Christiana Best-Cummings says:

      I appreciate your candid and honest thoughts on the issue of the role racism plays in the immigration dialogue and our nation’s policies. Your remarks are particularly poignant coming from a woman of European ancestry. We need allies like you to make change happen so thanks for your support. As you indicated, where assimilation and the accompanying resources that were and still is available for European immigrants, it’s not a option for people of color.

      Racism and other biases against people of color, women, sexual orientation, religion and national origin play a significant role in our laws, and policies in this country historically as well as today. The immigration discourse seems to be the place where all these biases intersect. I recognize the immigration issue is a complex one and there have been several attempts to address them in the past, but lately there seems to be a great deal of political posturing that are focused on solutions that are superficial and punitive. Many of these so call solutions were discussed during the Republican debates by the candidates. However, more significantly is the enormous increase in the number deportations by the current administration. While I believe it is very important to address issues of safety and national security, it appears to me that this elevated rate of deportation is embedded in racism and biases as well. According to the CNN report on October 18th, 2011, nearly 216, 698 or 55 percent of the people deported were convicted of felonies and misdemeanors. It isn’t clear what were the reasons or mechanism utilized to identify and deport the other 45 percent. However, when we hear about stories such as the one reported by El Dario of the mom, Sara Martinez who was traveling with her five year old daughter and was taken off a bus in Rochester by Border Patrol agents and processed for deportation because she was unable to show them identification, you ask yourself what is the real issue here? I never here of any European immigrants getting deported. Are all the undocumented immigrants people of color?

      We know that racism permeates the fabric of this country and we also know that it is an issue that must be addressed in a substantial, meaningful way rather than a cursory or punitive way for us as a nation to move forward. So whether it’s the protection of immigrants, people of color, women, non-christians, or LGBT people, we must take a stand and require our legislators to step up and do the right thing. An example of where we can begin to let our voices heard is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that is currently in congress.

      The Violence Against Womn Act (VAWA) was originally passed by congress in 1994. The law created a special route for immigration status for certain battered nonctizens. It covered victims of domestic violence, victims of human tracfficking and other specific crimes. Today it is being proposed to include protection of domestic abuse for LGBT people and Native Americans where the abuser is not under the jurisdiction of the tribal courts.

      The is a good thing people. We can make our voices heard on this issue by calling our senators and congressional representaives to get this law passed immediately.

      • Sharon says:

        It is regrettable that the issue of immigration is used to enhance polarization and divisiveness among groups that have more in common than not, and who, if they were permitted to unite across cultures, races and ethnicities, would demonstrate how formidable their collective contributions have been to this country. Instead, there is a popular belief that only European immigrants struggled and strengthened our country’s legacy; a legacy that continues to unfold; and a story of disparate treatment that is now impacting other foreign born immigrants of color, women affected by violence, and vulnerable children. Thanks to Christiana for shedding light on her story that is true for so many immigrants of color; for highlighting the many points of intersection with this issue, and for telling us how we might particpate in bringing about change. Again, thank you.

  2. Ancil says:

    Dr. Best-Cummings, wonderful article. As an immigrant myself whose parents came first to make a way for me and my sisters, your personal story resonates. I too believe that race plays a huge role in the current anti-immigration legislature being proposed across the country. The experiences of brown and black immigrants in America is vastly different than that of others from different parts of the globe. However, we are a resilient, resourceful people, making the most of our opportunities, both offerred and taken. It is that resiliency that has led and sustained us through dark times, has been a driving force in moving America forward on issues of Civil Rights and which will ultimately defeat the xenophobic ideology being put forth in many of the states. Thanks for highlighting this important topic which hits close to home and reminding us that intolerance serves no purpose other than to diminish the greatness our nation.

  3. Ana Z says:

    Amazing article! As an immigrant, I find this story to be very inspiring. I share the experience of having my mother work very hard to give me, and my siblings, a chance to come to this country to have a better life. Immigration is a bitter sweet experience because although my mother did bring us here, I am sure she misses the life she gave up back at home for herself. Her hopes and dreams stayed in the country and this sacrifice of love was done for her children. I can only hope my success and determination for a better life, make her proud every single day. At 25, I am a MSW student and I know that continuing my education is the best gift I can ever give her. I wish she could see the USA as her home, the way I see it, as an American citizen; however, I know better. My mother’s plan for her future is to go back to our home country.

    Thank you for a GREAT semester!

  4. Tricia says:

    I can truly identify with the writer of this article as my parents also migrated from Jamaica to England with the goal of making a better life for their children. I witness first hand the hardships and struggles they went through: first with adopting to a new country and culture and; trying to find any kind of work to make ends meet. My mother, who was a trained teacher in Jamaica, was now doing domestic work and my father doing any kind of odds jobs to put food on the table. My three siblings and I benefitted greatly from their sacrifice — advanced degrees and one doctorate and doing quite well in our respective fields.

    Now as an adult reflecting on their experience, I cannot express my admiration and appreciation for what they accomplished given the barriers they most certainly experienced. This article is so very relevant when one thinks of the immigration laws that some states are currently adopting or promoting. This article has started an important dialogue and I hope it continues.

  5. says:

    Dr Best Cummings. This article is incredible. It inspires people like myself who work very close with immigrant families to pay close attention to how we can continue the movement toward making the larger systems aware of the challenges immigrant families face every day in child welfare. As I encounter families I recognize that these families are either directly or indirectly impacted by the challenges of immigration. It is a constant. We must address these issues in our policies in child welfare on a larger scale. Immigration is the fabric of this country. The ancestors of most of the people in this country were either brought here or migrated here not to long ago. Thank you for your contribution toward engaging the public in this much needed discussion. It cannot go ignored,

  6. Linda Barnes says:

    Dr. Best-Cummings,
    You have covered the topic of immigration and its effect upon people of color proficiently. After reading your article, my first thought was: “How easy it is for us to bury our heads in the sand and not stand up for issues that make us feel uncomfortable”. Well, I just pulled my head out of the sand. I stand with you on this very important issue. Whether we want to vocalize it or not,the policies of immigration as well as many other injustices levied against women, people of color, etc. are mired in prejudices, bias and racism (under the guise of being legal). I thank you and congratulate you for this inspiring article of advocacy.

    • Christiana Best-Cummings says:

      Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and engaging in this very important issue. Your support is very appreciated.

  7. Jennie Encalada says:

    Thank you for posting this article. I found your story to be very inspiring and it shows your dedication as well as the amazing example your mother set for you. I appreciate your discussion about immigrants in the United States. I think that the society we live in today is slightly more frightening than what I read in the textbooks regarding the blatant racism that was present during the Jim Crow era. Today, I feel that acts, although blatant, are not labeled as being racist because of the idea that racism no longer not exist. Immigrants today are still being treated differently based on their skin color. You make an excellent point, when you stated, “even if they change their names, they can’t change their skin color, physical characteristics or their race. Immigrants today are punished twice. They are punished for being newcomers and also for their racial and physical appearance.” My parents emigrated from South America at a young age and I am told of how they were treated because they did not speak English well, or looked different and darker than others. Although they were able to overcome this, work, and support their family, I think about the immigrant families that do not have such a support system and are constantly faced with new obstacles to overcome. This reminds me of recent policies, such as the Florida voters purge and who it targeted, without blatantly doing so. Thank you for discussing the historical difficulties for immigrants so that we can see how such discrimination is manifested today and perhaps come together to demand change.

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