Black Immigrants Matter

Black Immigrants Matter

In immigration, as in policing, every arm of the US incarceration and deportation machine brings down a hefty amount of its weight onto the backs of Black people.


The day after a Minneapolis Police officer killed George Floyd, Guerline Jozef’s mind was in the skies above the Gulf of Mexico. That morning, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had forced 30 Haitians—almost all of them Black—to board a deportation flight from Alexandria, La.

Jozef knew many of the people on the plane. In the weeks and months before that day, May 26, she spoke with many of the detained Haitians on the phone, introducing herself as an immigrant advocate. For many of them, locked in detention centers across the United States, Jozef’s call was the first time they had heard their native Creole in weeks. Jozef’s voice offered more than just a comfort for the Haitians in detention—it offered a way for them to find a lawyer, to raise the tens of thousands of dollars they needed to make bond, to understand how they could apply for asylum, and to access critical medical care, including Covid-19 tests.

Since cofounding the Haitian Bridge Alliance in 2016, Jozef has received numerous calls, often dozens a day, from Black immigrants in ICE detention. At first, she received calls only from Haitians—men, women, and even children who were waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Most immigrant advocacy organizations only have the staffing to accommodate Spanish speakers from Latin America, so Jozef, a Haitian immigrant herself, saw a clear need for detained Haitians to speak with advocates who understood them—not just their language but also, to put it plainly, where they were coming from. They needed a konpatriyòt. However, as Jozef’s advocacy expanded, she realized that Black immigrants, wherever they came from, faced particularly dire difficulties in navigating the US immigration system. Soon, Jozef was talking with Eritreans, Ethiopians, Mauritanians, Cameroonians, Congolese, Afro-Hondurans, Jamaicans, Afro-Mexicans, Ghanaians, and other Black people from around the world who had sought asylum in the United States, or who had been living in the country without papers, or who had committed some crime that prioritized them for deportation.

From her home in Southern California, Jozef mobilized a national response to stop the May 26 flight and others like it. Her public awareness campaign, waged with a group of other activists, gained some significant traction: Writing from Boston, a city with a large Haitian population, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and Representative Ayanna Pressley published letters to the Department of Homeland Security throughout the pandemic demanding it halt the deportations to Haiti. Legal representatives told Jozef that multiple people set to board the flight had recently tested positive for Covid-19. Some of them had only been given Tylenol. At the airport, half of the detainees took a notoriously unreliable rapid test, and those who tested negative for the coronavirus boarded the plane. Then the flight took off. As the first wave of protests over Floyd’s murder were beginning to break out in Minneapolis, the plane carrying 30 Haitians left Alexandria, flew south over the Mississippi Delta, curved a path along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and touched down in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.

Jozef felt exhausted and defeated, and she thought about how the difficulties she faced in advocating for Black immigrants were connected to the violence and aggression that Black Americans face at the hands of the criminal justice system. When, a week after the flight, she finally watched the video of Floyd being killed—the video that shows Officer Derek Chauvin keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds as Floyd cries out that he can’t breathe—she felt physically ill. For two weeks after seeing the video, she felt nauseated and deeply tired. She had trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping. “I asked myself: How could someone do this?” Jozef told me this past summer. “How could you do this to a human being?”

That was the same question she asked me when we spoke in July, a day when yet another ICE flight carrying dozens of asylum seekers—some of them infants on their mothers’ laps—took off for Haiti. The answer is one Jozef says she has learned, painfully and persistently, over her 30 years in the United States. Though the majority of people who have been deported from this country have been Latinx migrants from Mexico and Central America, Black migrants face rates of arrest, detention, and deportation disproportionate to their numbers in this country. The lesson Jozef learned: Every arm of our country’s incarceration and deportation machine brings down a hefty amount of its weight onto the backs of Black people.

Now, Black immigrants and their advocates are fighting to change that. In the midst of the uprisings after Floyd’s murder and the growth of Black Lives Matter into perhaps the largest protest movement in US history, activists hope that the time is right for the broader public to finally recognize the impact the country’s immigration system has on Black migrants. Organizations like the UndocuBlack Network and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), alongside smaller groups like Jozef’s, are working to amplify their long-term central organizing thesis: that in immigration, as in policing, Black lives matter.

For decades, black immigrants have faced excessively high rates of detention and deportation. According to a report from BAJI, while Black immigrants make up less than 5.4 percent of the undocumented population in the United States, they made up 10.6 percent of all deportation proceedings from 2003 to 2015—almost double their share of the undocumented population.

Under the Obama administration, billions of dollars flowed to immigration enforcement, and more people were removed, and at a faster rate, than under any other president in history. (Even Donald Trump failed to break Barack Obama’s records.) In speeches, Obama often noted that he’d instructed ICE to pursue only undocumented people with criminal records—a perverse way of indicating his compassion on the issue. However, according to Human Rights Watch, that policy likely caused the number of Black people caught in ICE’s dragnet to increase: Decades of overcriminalization of Black communities had resulted in higher rates of conviction for Black people, which, when paired with Obama’s emphasis on people with criminal records, led in turn to higher rates of deportation for Black migrants. By 2015, more than one out of every five people facing deportation due to a criminal conviction was Black, despite making up just 7.2 percent of the total noncitizen population, documented or not.

The threats to Black immigrants only increased under Trump. In 2017, Trump ended temporary protected status—a designation that shields immigrants from deportation if their home country is undergoing a crisis—for Haitian immigrants. The move put 60,000 Haitians living in the United States in danger of deportation. That same year, a deportation flight to Somalia caused a scandal after immigrants on the flight told reporters about their horrific treatment: Passengers remained shackled on the plane for over 40 hours as the flight faced logistical issues and was forced to return to the United States. In interviews with The Intercept, advocates also said that passengers were forced to urinate in bottles or on themselves and faced beatings and threats by ICE officers.

Trump’s policies on the border also endangered Black immigrants. Many Black refugees fleeing countries outside of the Americas fly first to Latin America before making the deadly trek north to the US border. But once they reached the border, hundreds of Black asylum seekers—from Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries—were turned away by Border Patrol agents and forced to remain in refugee camps in Mexico, as part of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols. In February 2020, Trump closed the door completely to many of these migrants when he expanded his racially driven travel ban to include people from Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Tanzania.

The situation has reached a crisis during the pandemic. Since Covid-19 hit the United States, the share of Black immigrants in detention has gone up, especially in family detention centers. According to data collected by RAICES, a refugee and immigrant rights organization, more than 44 percent of all families locked in ICE detention this past summer were Haitian. RAICES also found that on any given day in the past year, Haitians were the single largest nationality group in family detention. Many of these families, fleeing widespread political violence in Haiti, have since been deported.

When it comes to seeking asylum, advocates say that Black migrants also face an uphill battle in having their cases fairly heard. In the United States, asylum seekers do not have a right to lawyers or a trial by jury; this gives immense power to the subjective opinions of the individual judges who decide their cases. If a judge decides that an asylum seeker seems dishonest, that refugee could get deported back to a country where they face persecution or death. The fickleness of this process seems to have led to demonstrably worse outcomes for Black immigrants at deportation hearings: In the last two decades, people from Haiti, Jamaica, and Somalia have had some of the highest rates of asylum denial of any nationality. Each of these countries has experienced violent political unrest for much of the 21st century, but because they also have dire poverty rates, judges often determine that asylum seekers from these nations are economic migrants rather than refugees. From 2012 to 2017, 87 percent of Haitian asylum seekers were denied asylum—the highest denial rate of any nationality besides Mexicans, whose applications are denied at a rate of 88 percent. In the early 2000s, Jamaicans topped the list of asylum denials, with a 92 percent denial rate. According to the American Bar Association, Somali immigrants had the highest arrest rate of all nationalities under Trump and the highest removal rate in 2017. (ICE deported 521 Somalis that year, up from 65 three years prior.) Judges also have unilateral power to determine bail for asylum seekers locked in detention, based on how much of a flight risk or public danger they think the applicant might be. Many attorneys say that, in their own experience, bonds tend to be set much higher for Black immigrants—tens of thousands of dollars higher. And there’s data to back that up. According to RAICES, between 2018 and 2020, the average bond that immigrant rights organizations paid for their clients was $10,500, but for Haitians, it was $16,700.

“Bail is very often set significantly higher for my Black clients than my other clients,” says Lisa Knox, a senior attorney with the immigration legal aid organization Centro Legal de la Raza. “I can see how judges treat my Black clients with more suspicion; judges are more likely to assume they’re lying.” Knox, who is Black, adds, “I can tell they just see some ‘criminal’ in front of them.”

The bond rates for Caribbean and African migrants—often above $50,000, according to the bond requests I reviewed—are astronomically higher than many immigrants could possibly afford. It can lead to years-long detentions. Indeed, the person who spent the longest period of time in immigration detention—10 years—was a Rwandan national. The second longest detention was endured by a Kenyan, who spent about nine years in immigration lockup. (For comparison, the average stay is 55 days.)

While in detention, the conditions that Black people face can also be particularly harsh. According to a study published last year, people from Africa and the Caribbean represented 24 percent of the people placed in solitary confinement in ICE custody from 2012 to 2017, even though they made up only 4 percent of ICE detainees. In 2018, the immigrant advocacy organization Freedom for Immigrants released a report documenting hundreds of allegations of racism and xenophobia in immigrant detention centers. One detained immigrant in Texas said a warden told her, “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage.” In Massachusetts, another detained Black immigrant recounted an officer telling them, “No one will believe baboon complaints.”

The unpayable bonds often result in family separations. In 2019, Marie, an asylum seeker from Haiti who was unable to pay bail, watched as her 18-year-old daughter was forcibly removed from the rest of her family because, she was told, she was too old to remain in the same detention center as them. When Marie was eventually released, her daughter remained in detention, with a bond set at $10,000. “I had no money,” Marie said at a press event RAICES hosted in 2020 to raise awareness about the experiences of Black immigrants.

Marie felt hopeless. “But then God really changed my life,” she said. “He put me in touch with Guerline Jozef.” As she has done for countless detained Black immigrants, Jozef raised the money to free Marie’s daughter. On Mother’s Day, Jozef called Marie to let her know that her daughter was going to come home. “She made things change for me and gave me hope again,” Marie said.

Jozef, who worked in the entertainment industry before turning to immigrant rights, says she felt moved to do this work—to raise money and aid Black immigrants—because of a simple fact: Few other people were going to do it. As Black immigrant advocates explained to me, even in the immigration justice world, implicit bias makes it difficult for Black migrants to get the aid, lawyers, and support they need. “There are ways in which the nonprofit industrial complex can replicate a lot of the harm that exists outside of these social justice spaces,” says Tsion Gurmu, BAJI’s legal director.

As Nicole Morgan, an attorney at RAICES, points out, many well-meaning white attorneys don’t recognize their prejudice as bigotry. “I’ve heard attorneys say, ‘Oh, I don’t take clients from Benin, because those people are difficult to work with.’” Other Black lawyers say they’ve heard white colleagues use that same word—“difficult”—to describe other predominantly Black nationalities. In other situations, Morgan says, asylum attorneys tend to understand that their clients are dealing with serious trauma and that it can manifest as anger or frustration, but this patience tends to wear away when it comes to Black clients. Thus, white attorneys are more likely to use “difficult” to describe African and Caribbean clients.

“That’s just the narrative they tell themselves and that they carry throughout their career,” Morgan says.

The fight for black immigrant lives isn’t restricted to the country’s asylum system. Bigotry and bias permeate the regular immigration system as well.

Donovan Grant, who emigrated from Jamaica as a child, says that “as a Black man growing up in the States,” he learned quickly how racism works in this country. Grant says he remembers one experience in particular. He was 19. He had saved up and bought a new car, a gold coupe. “I can remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. He was dropping a friend off at home in Compton, Calif., when the cops appeared. “I wasn’t even moving, but he forced me to get out of the car. They began searching the car,” Grant recalls. “You get profiled. Just being a Black man in a nice car—it doesn’t matter if you’re a football player or a congressman or driving a Rolls Royce. Rolling while Black, automatically you’re a target.”

That persistent targeting meant that Grant, like many other Black people in the United States, has significantly more experience with law enforcement than other people. “I have a different kind of scrutiny when it comes to my skin color,” he says. It also meant that something that wouldn’t have led to a criminal record in a rich white suburb (how many frat boys get busted for marijuana possession?) left Grant with a criminal conspiracy conviction. And having a criminal record, when you’re an immigrant, can destroy your life.

The day George Floyd died, Grant was in the Mesa Verde ICE detention center in Southern California. In 2019, he had finished a three-year prison sentence for the conspiracy conviction. But as soon as he was released, ICE rearrested him; his criminal conviction had endangered his immigration status, thanks to a Clinton-era act that greatly expanded the types of criminal conviction that can be grounds for removal. He again found himself behind bars, in what some advocates call the “double punishment” experienced by immigrants.

When immigrants with green cards and legal status take plea deals in criminal cases, they often don’t realize that even a minor conviction or short jail sentence can lead to their eventual deportation. For Grant, it was devastating to leave jail only to get locked up again. This prison-to-deportation pipeline is so severe for Black people in this country that it has sucked up not just immigrants but native-born Americans as well. In 2018, Peter Sean Brown ended up in a Florida sheriff’s office for violating the terms of his probation (he had tested positive for smoking pot). The sheriff’s office told him he wasn’t getting out after his detention—they were going to hold him so that ICE could pick him up and deport him to Jamaica.

Brown panicked and immediately protested, saying that he had been to Jamaica just once in his life, for less than a day on a cruise, and knew no one in that country. He’d been born and raised in Philadelphia. The deputies just laughed at him. One of them sang the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song: “In West Philadelphia, born and raised….”

“It was so sad and sickening to me, because there is nothing about me that even hints that I might be from somewhere other than the United States,” Brown says. “Besides the fact that I’m Black. Nothing besides the color of my skin connects me to Jamaica.”

It came down to a case of mistaken identity: Brown allegedly shared biometric information with a Jamaican immigrant ICE had on its radar. But there was nothing he could do to convince the deputies he was telling the truth, even after he managed to have a friend bring them his birth certificate. Eventually, he was placed in an ICE transport bus. As Brown left the jail, one of the deputies did a bad Bobby McFerrin impression, saying, in a Jamaican accent, “Don’t worry, man.”

Fortunately, Brown spent only a day in ICE detention before the agency realized its mistake. Davino Watson was not so lucky. Another Black, male, native-born US citizen, Watson spent three years in ICE detention fighting the agency’s own clerical mistake. When I spoke with Watson in 2018 about his experience, the impact was clear: “It broke my life into pieces,” he told me.

On July 4, 2018, Patricia Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty about 100 feet from its pedestal in what became one of the most iconic moments of protest in the Trump era. She stood for hours on this country’s symbol of tolerance and welcome, demanding an end to family separation and child detention.

In the weeks afterward, many people referred to Okoumou as an ally to immigrants—a label that perturbed her. Okoumou is also an immigrant; she’s a naturalized US citizen, born in the Republic of Congo.

Okoumou says she felt she had to do whatever she could to raise awareness about the Black children she felt had been rendered invisible in the media’s coverage of the crisis. “Systemic racism is embedded in our culture so badly, going back to slavery and the way Black children are treated,” she says. “It’s almost as if we become numb to this reality.”

Even though Okoumou’s protest dominated the front pages, and the image of her on the statue is still widely shared, she feels as if she herself—her life, her continued activism, her one-room apartment—has been made invisible. She feels ignored and erased, even as her image is everywhere. “I feel like my story gets used,” she says.

For Jozef, this all makes sense. She understands the forces at play that make Black immigrants, wherever they are, invisible.

“Who is climbing the Statue of Liberty to say immigrant children need to be freed? It was a Black woman,” she says. “It is Black immigrants putting their lives on the line, and still we are erased.”

For Jozef, the deep roots of bigotry and bias against Black people in the immigration system can explain so much of the suffering we see today inflicted on immigrants of any race.

During her teenage years in the New York City borough of Queens, Jozef learned from her family and the community around her about the tens of thousands of Haitian refugees held by the United States in a massive refugee camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In the early 1990s, thousands of Haitians fled a brutal military coup and subsequent dictatorship, and many went north in flimsy boats. In response, the United States sent the Coast Guard to form a cordon around the island and pick up any Haitians before they could land in the US. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush established the Guantánamo refugee camp for the same reason his son would later make “Gitmo” the center of his torture campaign during the War on Terrorism: The military base existed outside of constitutional jurisdiction. The United States’ obligation to legal refugees did not kick in until they set foot on US soil.

The conditions at the refugee center were horrific, with as many as 34,000 people living in flimsy tents surrounded by rows of razor wire. Most were ultimately sent back to Haiti, though some were allowed to pursue asylum claims. But even among those who qualified for asylum, 250 were held in legal limbo in a separate camp because they had tested positive for HIV or were related to someone who had—a discriminatory and medically unsound 1987 law had forbidden those with HIV from entering the country. It wasn’t until a federal judge ruled against what he called the “H.I.V. prison camp” that the Clinton administration was forced to shut it down and bring the asylees to the United States.

For Jozef, this moment is critical to understand. This is the beginning of the mass incarceration of immigrants in the United States, she says. Though the government had detained immigrants and even US citizens it had deemed undesirable before—Eastern Europeans at Ellis Island, Chinese and other Asians at Angel Island, Japanese in internment camps during World War II—the tactics tested out on the Haitians at Guantánamo set the modern detention machine in motion. “It began with the mass detention of Black people,” Jozef says, adding that a new landmark in this dark history was reached in 2016, when Haitian families began to be separated, laying the groundwork for the family separation crisis under Trump. (Starting as early as 2007, Haitian children were often separated from their fathers but not their mothers, while under Trump children were separated from both.)

Jozef says that when she heard that Trump had been defeated in November, she was exhausted: For the entire previous month, a deportation flight had taken off for Haiti almost every other day. She says that Biden’s victory was a light at the end of the tunnel—albeit a very dim one.

“When I saw the news that Biden had won, it was a feeling that the fight would change,” she says. “Now we must fight to hold him accountable. It’s time to retie our boots and keep pushing forward.”

On his first day in office, Biden signed a host of executive orders. One struck down Trump’s travel ban on people from several African and Muslim countries; another offered Liberians in the United States protection from deportation. The same week that Biden was sworn in, Guerline learned that the members of a Haitian family who’d spent the entire pandemic in a detention center had finally been paroled to await the results of their asylum case. And in February, Biden reversed Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” asylum policy. But Jozef’s sense of hope soon turned to despair: Since taking office, Biden has left some of Trump’s harshest measures in place, including a complete ban on asylum that Trump issued in March 2020, with Covid-19 as the justification. Under Biden, thousands of Haitian asylum seekers have been expelled before they even had the chance to ask for asylum. In the first two weeks of February, over 900 Haitians were deported, and Jozef says that there are now days when three different deportation flights have taken off for Haiti, which descended into a major political crisis in February when multiple politicians claimed the presidency.

Jozef dreams of a day when the archipelago of detention centers that jails immigrants and their families across the United States will fall. As president, Biden has the broad discretion to release almost everyone currently in ICE detention. Alternatives to detention exist, and Biden has no obligation to continue detaining asylum seekers, families, and children beyond a short processing period. For Jozef, fighting for this future is how she fights for Black lives. She’s seen so much suffering inside immigration jails.

But for now, the struggle continues. According to Jozef, on February 1, the first day of Black History Month, ICE forced 102 Haitians onto a plane. Parents held children on their laps; many of the passengers were less than 2 years old. The flight took off from San Antonio, winged its way over the Gulf, and landed in Port-au-Prince. The next flight would take off just days later.

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