Editor’s Note: Bambadjan Bamba is an actor who appears on NBC’s “The Good Place” and in the upcoming Marvel film “Black Panther.” He works with Define American, a nonprofit organization dedicated to shifting the conversation about immigrants. For information on Bamba’s story, visit defineamerican.com/bamba. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I am an undocumented actor and filmmaker who is working legally in the United States. If this sentence reads like a contradiction, let me assure you it is not.
When I came out as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, I knew it would be risky for my career. I have been able to create a life that many dream about. But seeing other DACA recipients with much less than I have risking their freedom to protest and petition for a fix to the broken immigration system gave me the courage to step forward.
After the Trump administration announced it would be ending the DACA program, I decided I could no longer stay silent. Without DACA or a permanent fix such as the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, thousands of lives remain in jeopardy.
My journey here was not unlike other black immigrants. I am from Ivory Coast and came into this country legally with my parents two decades ago. As you can imagine, one can’t just walk across the border. You have to get on a plane with some sort of visa (student, refugee, work, diversity lottery or visitor) and get admitted into the country by a customs official.
In 1992, when I was 10 years old, my family was fleeing political persecution and found refuge in the South Bronx, which is a predominately Puerto Rican, Dominican, Afro-American and African community. We came in with a visitor’s visa and applied for political asylum.
When I came to the United States, I could only speak French, but I was placed in a Spanish ESL class because that’s all there was. I learned English by listening to hip-hop greats such as Biggie Smalls and watching cartoons such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Meanwhile, as I was trying to adjust to my new surroundings, my parents were trying their best to understand this complicated immigration system. Oftentimes, the willingness and struggles of immigrants to obtain or keep legal status is left out of the media’s coverage. They fell prey to unscrupulous immigration lawyers who ripped them off because resources for black immigrants were limited – especially for Francophone Africans and Africans who only speak African languages.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I found out what having my asylum case “pending” meant for me: I was undocumented. I didn’t qualify to receive any financial aid or college scholarships, even if I was granted them.
It felt like my dream to become an actor was over.
But my name, Bamba, means “resilient” in Dioula (Madingo) – a language spoken in Ivory Coast, and I would have to live up to my name. So I picked myself up and worked my way through drama school without financial aid, avoiding auditions for any role that would require me to work internationally because I knew I couldn’t travel. If I left, there were no guarantees I’d be let back in.
While I was trying to maneuver through life without legal status, I was also dealing with the realities of being black in America. To be black without papers meant that I was walking on an additional layer of eggshells – never wanting to appear too aggressive or suspicious.
In my case and the case of many black immigrants, it could have also led to criminalization and deportation proceedings.
By the time the DACA program began under President Barack Obama in 2012, I must have had dozens of consultations with immigration lawyers who told me there was no option for me to adjust my status. DACA was a lifeline that allowed me to continue pursuing my dream of becoming an actor. I felt fortunate that I made the program’s age limit of 31 by a couple of months. It was nerve-wracking putting all the documents together, but DACA was my only option. I applied, was accepted and worked my way up in Hollywood.
I am here legally until my DACA status expires. My life has not been defined by my immigration status, but, like so many, it is something that now looms large with the current political fight in Congress over immigration laws.
DACA was a dream come true. As an actor, it gave me the confidence to book more work and speak my mind a little louder without fear that my status would be used against me. But most importantly, it gave me some peace of mind that I wasn’t going to get separated from my family.
I am now working with Define American, an organization that has helped so many others tell their own immigration stories through its digital story platform. In addition, the group consults with Hollywood creatives to integrate immigrant stories into their projects.
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But I know the only real long-term solution is a legislative one. The bipartisan DREAM Act before Congress would protect DACA recipients from deportation and is needed because it would also enable DACA recipients, such as myself, to get permanent legal status if they met certain conditions.
Without it, families such as mine will continue to be torn apart.