Centering Black Voices in the Struggle for Immigrant Rights

Kica Matos Former Vice President, Initiatives // Nana Gyamfi Executive Director, Black Alliance for Just Immigration
Sep 09, 2020
A group of African detainees inside the ICE Pine Prairie facility, Louisiana, July 2020 | Photo by Joe Penney

On Juneteenth, Black Cameroonian asylum seekers made a video from a holding cell at the Pine Prairie Detention Center in Louisiana. The men had fled persecution in their homelands and sought refuge in America, only to be detained indefinitely in a facility in the deep South run by a for-profit corporation that has long been accused of human rights abuses.

“We are like slaves under a master, which is ICE,” said one of the protesters. “We are suffering. We are really suffering.”

The men continue to conduct hunger strikes as part of their fight to be treated with dignity, and their video ends with a plea:

“We beg you to help us in here. We are dying, we are dying for real.”

America represents a beacon of hope to immigrants, including Black immigrants who come here in search of opportunity and freedom. Instead, too many find discrimination, criminalization, and oppression by intersecting criminal legal and immigration systems that are historically rooted in anti-Blackness. Racial profiling and overpolicing by local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities leave Black immigrants doubly vulnerable to detention and deportation.

The unique suffering of Black immigrants is not surprising given the country’s troubling history of racism in its immigration laws. The first law about American citizenship, written in 1790, explicitly excluded Black people. Since then, the U.S. government has implemented racial exclusion policies, quotas, and restrictions that have ensured white immigrants are privileged above all others, while Black immigrants are shut out.

Black immigrants who reach America continue to face intersecting systems of oppression as well as disproportionate criminalization and deportation. In the immigration system, Black immigrants are more likely to face enforcement and are disproportionately represented among immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds, even though Black immigrants do not commit crimes at greater rates than other immigrants. In the criminal legal system, Black people are 3.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though the two groups use the drug at roughly equal rates. Such racially biased criminal convictions feed Black immigrants into the deportation machine: 76 percent of Black immigrants who were deported in 2013 were removed on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent for all immigrants.

As a nation, we face one of the most profound societal reckonings with racism that we have seen in our lifetimes. Race and anti-Blackness have been intentionally overlooked and neglected by the immigrant rights movement. This moment calls on all of us to take concrete actions in our movements and communities to shift the narrative of the immigration conversation to center Black voices and challenge anti-Blackness. We urge advocates and supporters to act on a number of fronts.

  • Ensure Black voices are centered in the immigration conversation and public narrative. We must elevate the plight of Africans who have staged numerous protests against racist practices at the U.S.-Mexico border that allow Central Americans to cross to request asylum but deny Africans that opportunity. We must elevate the voices of the Cameroonian women who organized a sit-down protest to object to poor medical treatment at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas. These brave women were punished by being moved to another detention facility far from their community.
  • Ensure that Black leadership is part of key decision making and agenda setting in immigration reform organizations. Build relationships with, center, and lift up the work of Black leaders who and immigrant-led organizations that have long been working at the intersection of immigration and racial justice. Embed anti-racism practices into our organizations and coalitions.
  • Challenge anti-Blackness in our movements, coalitions, and communities wherever we see it. We must speak against criminal carveouts for immigrant protections like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, which disproportionately exclude Black immigrants because they are disproportionately criminalized in the United States. We must push back on harmful and anti-Black talking points that privilege immigrants who don’t have criminal records as more worthy of humane treatment. These do not account for the racist and unjust criminal justice practices that disproportionately criminalize Black people.
  • Support local efforts to divest from policing and invest in Black communities. Local immigration campaigns can ensure connection on the ground with Black Lives Matter and other grassroots campaigns for racial justice.
  • Support and advance efforts like universal representation for all immigrants facing deportation proceedings to dismantle the pipeline between the criminal legal and immigration systems.

For more information on centering Black voices and challenging anti-Blackness in the immigration reform movement, access a recording of our webinar Anti-Blackness and Immigration: A Conversation About Intersecting Systems of Oppression and the Fight for Justice.