Immigration is a Black issue

The Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees is one of many examples of anti-Black racism in our immigration system. It’s time we end this injustice.

By Peniel Ibe

 Last fall, many of us saw the horrifying photos of Haitian refugees in Del Rio, Texas—living in makeshifts camps and facing brutality by Border Patrol agents on horseback. The Biden administration deported many of those refugees to Haiti, sending them to a country now facing some of the worst crises in its history.  

The Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees is horrifying—but not surprising. It reflects our nation’s long history of a broken immigration system built on racism and cruelty. 

Today there are about four million Black immigrants in the U.S., including at least half a million who are undocumented. As our nation reckons with racial justice issues, we must acknowledge that immigration is a racial justice issue. It is a Black issue. 

Narratives about immigration often omit the experiences of Black immigrants. While decades of powerful organizing have brought the Latinx immigrant rights movement front and center, we often overlook the fact that immigrants come from all over the world—including Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. When entire communities are omitted from our narratives, they are also left out of conversations on protecting immigrants and advocating for their human rights. 

Here are five things you should know about Black immigrants in the U.S.—and how we can work to stop anti-Black racism in our immigration system.  

1. U.S. immigration laws are rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

U.S. immigration policy has always sought to maintain a preference for “whiteness,” often alienating immigrants from non-European backgrounds. The very first immigration law passed in 1790 created a pathway to citizenship for only “free white persons” who had lived in the United States for at least two years. In the ensuing decades, multiple laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, The National Origins Act, and the Tydings-McDuffie Act, restricted immigration from majority Black and Asian countries.

More recently, the Trump administration enacted—and insisted on defending—its racist and xenophobic Muslim and African bans, reminding us that a tree planted with racist ideals will only bear racist fruit. And the Biden administration has continued to implement other racist Trump-era policies, including carrying out rapid deportations under “Title 42” that have allowed mass expulsions of Haitian at the border. 

It’s also worth recognizing that the arbitrary borders created by predominantly white nations like Britain, France, and Germany—and the laws that govern these borders—were designed to disadvantage people of color who seek to migrate. It’s no surprise that those who have benefited from the existence of borders would advocate for racially biased restrictions on who can cross these borders freely. What’s more, U.S. foreign policy—as well as that of other countries such as Britain and France—have fueled  destabilization in Haiti and other former colonies—one of the key drivers of migration to which they respond with harsh anti-immigrant policies. 

(To learn more, listen to “The Other Side of the Water: Immigration and the Promise of Racial Justice,” podcast on immigration and racial justice.)

2. Black immigrants live a life of double jeopardy—constantly targeted by police and immigration enforcement. 

Our anti-Black and xenophobic immigration system is entangled with our racist criminal legal system in multiple ways. Black immigrants now make up at least 10% of the Black population and 8.7% of all non-citizens in the U.S. 

Black people are disproportionately racially profiled, stopped, and arrested by police. They live a double jeopardy life—frequently targeted and criminalized by both local law enforcement and immigration enforcement. 

The cornerstone laws of the U.S. immigration system—the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (“IIRIRA”) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”)—made three broad changes that ushered in the practice of mass detention and deportation that continues today. They vastly expanded the criminal grounds for deportation—often triggered by any interaction an individual may have with the criminal legal system, which frequently results in mandatory detention and deportation. The two acts are also “one-strike laws,” which subject non-citizens to mandatory deportation—even in cases where no jail sentence is imposed. 

Other policies have worsened perils faced by Black immigrants. That includes the federal 287(g) programs, which enables local law enforcement transfer immigrants they detain to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. The disproportionate policing of Black people means that more Black immigrants end up in ICE custody, and many are scheduled for deportation over minor offenses—often without access to legal counsel and due process. 

These disparities have fed the U.S. immigration detention and deportation machine. Even though Black immigrants make up less than 9% of the undocumented population, they make up over 20% of all immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds or alleged criminal offenses, according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Among all immigrants, Black immigrants are nearly three times more likely to be detained and deported because of an alleged criminal offense.

3. Black immigrants face disproportionate rates of incarceration and abuse by immigration enforcement.   

Advocates recorded that the lengthiest recorded ICE detentions in 2019 were of Black African migrants. Black immigrants are also six times more likely to be sent to solitary confinement than other groups. 

There are more than 600,000 Black undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have experienced trauma in our immigration and carceral systems. In one of the most horrific examples in 2020, ICE deported over 100 Cameroonians and Haitians after they went on hunger strike to protest human rights abuses like medical neglect, forced hysterectomies, and slavery-like conditions in a detention facility in Natchez, Mississippi. Human rights groups documented how immigrants were tortured to obtain their signatures for travel, and many were beaten when they wouldn’t board planes. 

Many of the nation’s prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers—and virtually all services inside these facilities, such as phone services and commissary—have been privatized, placing Black immigrants at the mercy of corporations that profit from caging people. What’s more, bonds paid to bail out Haitian immigrants averaged $16,700, 54% higher than for other immigrants. 

In February 2021 alone, ICE is anticipated to deport almost 2,000 Black immigrants, primarily Haitians. That includes women and children who seek refuge in the U.S., only to be sent back to the very danger that they fled.

4. Attacks on the immigration system have had devastating impacts on Black immigrants. 

Black migrants who have traveled harsh conditions from places in Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere are forced into U.S. detention centers and then deported often with little or no due process. From 2012-2017, Haitians had the second-highest denial rate at 86% for asylum (following Mexicans at 88%). In the years prior, Jamaicans had the highest asylum denial rate. In 2017, when the overall number of deportations decreased, the number of deportations of Black African immigrants increased, according to the Pew Research Center. People from Somalia—a country facing some of the world’s most severe humanitarian challenges—experienced the highest deportation rates.

Policies under the Trump administration worsened the situation. Trump’s Muslim ban barred nationals from seven African countries from visiting the United States. Black immigrants also felt the devastating impacts of many other anti-immigrant policies—including attacks on the asylum system, ramped up immigration raids, deep cuts to refugee admissions, and efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). 

Today, the Biden administration is perpetuating the mistreatment and human rights violations of asylum seekers at the border. 

5. We must work to stop anti-Black racism in our immigration system. 

The struggle for justice for all immigrants is part of a larger racial justice movement that demands full equality and investments in Black immigrants and their liberation. We cannot end detention and deportation and anti-immigrant policies until we address the fact that our current immigration system is rooted in anti-Black racism.  

How we can all take steps to stop anti-Black racism in our immigration system?

1) Educate yourself and others by following and amplifying the work of Black-led immigrant rights organizations, including:

On Feb. 24, 12 p.m., please join an upcoming virtual event lead by Black migrant faith leaders and impacted community members in prayers for justice for Black migrants. Register to join here.

2) Tell Congress today: Create a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants!

Migration is a human right. Everyone in our community without permanent immigration status deserves a lasting solution that will keep families and communities together.

It’s time for Congress to pass legislation to create a roadmap to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people in the United States. This includes people protected by DACA, TPS, and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status; essential workers; and more. Most importantly, Congress must pass legislation that includes all immigrants. There can be no exceptions for anyone, including people involved in the criminal legal system—which would disproportionately exclude Black immigrants. 

3) Learn more about the call to abolish ICE. Then contact your representatives and urge them to end its abuses once and for all.

ICE has a long history of violating human rights, separating loved ones, and terrorizing our communities—and it's time to put a stop to it for good.

Today it's as important as ever that we end anti-Black racism and white supremacy in all its forms—and work to build inclusive communities where the rights and dignity of all are respected.