Dig deeply into the moral foundations of the United States’ immigration policy and you’ll unearth its nasty undergirding of racial capitalism, a concept civil rights and constitutional rights law professor Nancy Leong defined in her 2013 Harvard Law Review article as “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.” Racial capitalism saturates our collective American subconscious. On the surface, we’re taught that good people work hard and bad folks are freeloaders who deserve to be punished. It’s baked into our raced-based social hierarchy. White people are on the top and Black people are on the bottom—economically, socially, and morally. Therefore, those closest to the bottom are more likely to be judged, sentenced, and punished by default.
Sadly, this belief is exactly why Black and brown immigrants seeking asylum are often imprisoned rather than welcomed with open arms. White Americans warm up to a Ukrainian refugee seeking asylum from war more easily than to someone from, say, El Salvador.
Biden announced in March that the United States would accept 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. If given the choice, white Americans consider the Ukrainian a much more desirable asset to this country. The Latino immigrant triggers a much chillier response based on the presumption that they will be a burden to our education, health care, welfare, or criminal justice systems.
Take Yuliana Melchor, whose husband was deported to Mexico nearly eight years ago. She became a single mother in her longtime home of Gettysburg, Pa., where she remains for the sake of her two teenage children, despite the risk of deportation . Her oldest is enrolled in college and her younger child has a learning disability. As a result of her immigration status, she has been forced to support them on below-poverty wages, working as a housekeeper, waitress, cashier, and now a farmworker. Still, by American moral standards, she’s a good person who’s pulling her own weight. She’s a leader in CASA, an immigrant advocacy network, and a Center for Popular Democracy Action affiliate. Nonetheless, her character bears one stain in the eyes of anti-immigrant Americans: She’s undocumented.
In recent weeks, a fresh wave of Black and brown asylum seekers have sought refuge through our southern and Canadian borders, a month before the expiration of Title 42, the Trump-era emergency Health and Human Services (HHS) rule that allows the CDC to immediately expel migrants from so-called “Coronavirus Impacted Areas.” The May 23 deadline for this Covid-evoked rule, which allows for immediate expulsions under the guise of an emergency national health event, may be extended by the Biden administration to quell the border crossing crisis. Although the administration has signaled that it would end the policy, it has expanded its use in recent weeks. The elimination of the policy also faces legal challenges.
Wednesday, the Center for Popular Democracy Action will join our affiliates and partners to call for the redesignation of those nations excluded from Temporary Protection Status—countries with populations that are primarily poor, Black, and brown. These are but a few examples of an unjust immigration policy built on a foundation of racial capitalism.
As an Afro-Latina and child of immigrants from Colombia and the Dominican Republic I feel this injustice to my bones. I have family members who have different immigration statuses. Some, like me, are citizens. Others, like Yuliana, aren’t. So this is personal for me, because they are part of a community of immigrants cast as immoral lawbreakers by messaging strategists pandering to the conservative base. Right-wing actors have created a nasty narrative at the expense of loving parents who seek basic shelter, safety, and opportunities for their children. Naturally, Black and brown migrants want to build lasting legacies for generations to come. But when they’re characterized as degenerates “stealing” opportunities from white Americans, I feel the sting. As a young girl born to immigrant parents, this messaging hurt. It still does. It’s why I fight for Black and brown human dignity today.
A faction of the American public, primarily white and conservative, accepts the myth that people of color are only as good as their market value. Only then do they become entitled to basic human rights and dignity. Therefore, a racial minority’s collective market value outweighs their human value. That’s a problem, because it’s a foundation for our highly punitive immigration policy that treats people of color as deserving incarceration. Black and brown asylum seekers are seen through the lens of persistent subconscious (yet, often intentional) race bias. Our immigration system takes it out on them in a detention-first approach to migration that devalues human life—the result of more than 40 years of Border Patrol militarization at the Mexican border targeting Latino refugees.
If past is prologue, then American history teaches us that this simple message won’t change much but political will can. The onus is on President Biden to change this punitive and cruel policy affecting migrants of color by ending Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42, reassigning Temporary Protected Status to excluded nations, ending the practice of mass detention, and revoking deputizing authority to local police for immigration enforcement. The time to act decisively has long passed. Our communities deserve real change now.
America’s racial capitalism roots supersaturate our nation’s history—so deeply that most people don’t see what belies our immigration policy. But if our president is serious about saving the soul of our nation, he must be about the business of saving Black and brown lives coming across our borders.