The New Civil Rights Leaders

By: Lisa Armstrong


Opal Tometi: The Black Alliance for Just Immigration

Opal Tometi’s interest in immigration reform was born out of personal experience. Tometi grew up in Phoenix—”ground zero for the anti-immigration movement,” she says—and is the child of immigrants. Her parents moved to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1983, and Tometi, 30, was raised in a close-knit community of Nigerian immigrants.

When Tometi was 16, her classmate’s mother was deported, and the girl came to live with Tometi’s family for a period. Shortly thereafter, Tometi’s uncle was detained briefly by immigration officials. Both incidents were discussed in whispers, and no one really explained to Tometi what had happened and why. She started searching for answers on her own, and, in learning about anti-immigrant initiatives and their parallels to Jim Crow laws, Tometi was moved to fight against what she saw as a grave injustice. “It was very personal,” says Tometi. “Because people I loved were at risk; I was at risk.”

As a student at the University of Arizona-Tucson, Tometi volunteered with the ACLU to monitor and report the activities of vigilantes who were stopping immigrants as they tried to cross the border. “I was in school during the day and at night listening in on the vigilantes on their walkie-talkies,” she says.

In 2010, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a strict anti-immigration bill that stipulates that police officers can stop individuals and ask them to produce documentation to prove their immigration status, was passed. “SB1070 is basically racial profiling,” she says. “If we don’t come together, we’re going to see the gains of the Civil Rights Movement fully gutted.”

Today, Tometi is executive director of The Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “As the global economy becomes more dire, we see more Black people from the diaspora brave the U.S. borders looking for what they think will be better terrain,” she says. “What people often find are harsh conditions, relentless discrimination and criminalization.” Tometi has helped develop a network of Black immigrant organizations around the country. Her hope is that more African-Americans will join in the struggle for immigrant rights.