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Black immigrants have been left out of policy decisions for too long, organizers say

President Joe Biden recently vowed to put $107 billion toward immigration initiatives. Organizers say it’s time those efforts include Black immigrants.
Joella Roberts
Joella Roberts, 22, of Washington, a DACA recipient who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, leads a protest near the White House on June 12, 2020.Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

Shamira Ibrahim has experienced homelessness, a nerve-wracking trip across the U.S.-Canada border, struggles to obtain visas, poverty, a run-in with the criminal justice system and major financial hurdles as a result of being an East African immigrant.

Ibrahim, who is in her 30s, was born in Canada and briefly lived in East Africa before she and her family moved to the U.S. when she was around 5 years old. So Ibrahim has spent most of her life in the country, living with a fear Black immigrants know all too well. She has permanent resident status as a green card holder, but decades of status insecurity are difficult to shake, she said. 

“It was a lot of living hand to mouth for a while, trying to make sure I could get to next month. It’s stressful and it’s expensive trying to figure out how to adjust,” said Ibrahim, a culture writer who is a member of UndocuBlack Network, which supports Black immigrants. “It’s hard for me to understand being secure in my position in this country.”

Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones.

“I know people who went through way worse than we did,” Ibrahim said of herself, her mother and her younger brother. “In a country like America, whose empire is built on criminalizing foreigners, Black immigrants have an additional stressor around that, because Black people in this country are inherently criminalized. So navigating this country is uniquely painful.”

The Biden administration this month announced the proposed federal budget resolution for fiscal year 2022, which would allot $107 billion to the Senate Judiciary Committee to, among other orders, develop a pathway to lawful permanent status for undocumented immigrants. The proposal was announced after Joe Biden’s presidential campaign promised to build a “fair and just” immigration system by reversing former President Donald Trump’s asylum policies and ending “prolonged” detention and use of private prisons for immigration detention. With the proposed budget, advocates are asking how Biden will address the particular plight of Black immigrants. 

UndocuBlack, with over 600 members, is an advocacy group of current and former undocumented Black immigrants. The group has been working to ensure that Black immigrants aren’t erased in the national immigration discussion by advocating through local organizing, providing resources and developing educational tools.

About 7 percent of immigrants in the U.S. are Black. And the country’s estimated 4.6 million Black immigrants endure racism and xenophobia as they navigate life in the U.S. Black immigrants are more likely to be deported than immigrants of other races are, according to a report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. 

Immigrants pay bonds to leave detention centers and end family separations, but a report from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services found that bond amounts for Black immigrants were routinely higher than those for non-Black immigrants from June 2018 to June 2020. So detained migrants end up staying in immigration detention for long periods of time — sometimes indefinitely — because they can’t afford the disproportionately high bonds. Because Black communities are far more frequently targeted for arrest and prosecution than the general population is, 76 percent of Black immigrants are deported because of contact with police, according to the Black Alliance report. 

Organizers and advocates say that the disparities are rooted in racism and that the particular struggles of Black immigrants have been left out of the larger conversation about immigration. 

“Black immigrants exist, so immigration is a Black issue,” said Yoliswa Cele, UndocuBlack’s national director of narrative and media. “Black immigrants are constantly profiled. Things that could be a ticket then turn into misdemeanors. Black immigrants also have the highest visa denial rates. Black immigrants are more likely, when they are detained, to be put in solitary confinement. We bear the brunt of all the consequences that happen, all the xenophobia in this country.” 

Groups like UndocuBlack devote their time, money and other resources to supporting Black immigrants as they navigate the hardships of being Black and migrants to the country. UndocuBlack, the Black Immigrant Collective, African Communities Together and other groups fought for years to get Congress to pass Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness, a law that gives Liberians living in the U.S. since 2014 the opportunity to become permanent residents and to get green cards and, ultimately, citizenship. Congress passed the law in 2019; UndocuBlack officials said it is the first legalization bill signed into law in over a decade. 

In May, organizers celebrated as the Biden administration announced updated Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, meaning Haitians living with Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. would be protected longer under the new designation. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced updated Temporary Protected Status for Somalia last month.

But advocates say there’s still work to be done to address the broader struggles of Black immigrants. Criminalization is one of the primary barriers for Black immigrants seeking green cards and various visas in the U.S. And because Black immigrants interact more with police and the criminal justice system, securing permanent status is all but impossible, organizers say. 

Samah Sisay, a Liberian immigrant who has spent years working as an immigration lawyer, said she has seen the criminalization play out as she has represented Black immigrants in courts and asylum offices. Even lauded laws and programs like Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness, Temporary Protected Status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals include conditions that mean people who are convicted of certain crimes are ineligible. 

“Generally the issue with most things that Biden and other administrations put out around immigration is they always have what we call a ‘criminal carve out,’” Sisay said. “Most people recognize that the criminal legal system in the U.S. is racist and just criminalizes large chunks of people. And therefore Black immigrants get caught up in that and then are double punished by the immigration system because the immigration system validates the criminal system in a lot of ways.” 

Sisay said organizations that advocate for Black immigrants are calling on officials to address the ways immigration policies harm Black immigrants. In April, Black Alliance for Just Immigration officials highlighted shortcomings in the American Dream and Promise Act, a bill that would provide young immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long time with pathways to permanent resident status. Those with felonies or three or more misdemeanors, including any offense involving marijuana, are ineligible. Black Alliance for Just Immigration officials said the bill was “anti-Black” in a statement on Twitter. “The criminal bars in the Dream and Promise Act reinforce the racist US carceral system,” officials tweeted

Organizers said efforts to support immigrants must take into account how Black immigrants are affected by policies that promote and enforce their criminalization. That means including Black immigrants in criminal justice reform, providing opportunities for those unjustly deported, addressing the crisis facing Black immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and addressing the criminalization-to-deportation pipeline.

“What a lot of people are upset about, with this pathway to citizenship that the Biden administration is claiming they’re going to dedicate money to, we know that at the end of the day only certain people will qualify for it,” Sisay said. 

“It’s going to play into this continuing narrative that’s existed in the U.S. for a long time about who is deserving as an immigrant. Oftentimes Black immigrants are not in that picture, and folks who have any contact with the criminal system are oftentimes left out.”

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