At the Intersection of Undocumented and Black

Anti-Blackness in U.S. Immigration Policy — Part 1

Lisa Betty
21 min readJul 29, 2020
Guadeloupean woman, circa 1910, Ellis Island, New York. Ellis Island Photographs from the Collection of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration, 1902–1913

undocumented welfare queen”

In 1976 during then Governor of California Ronald Reagan’s first candidacy for U.S. president, he addressed an audience of supporters with an anecdote of a Chicago woman with a $150,000 a year tax-free cash income from the use of “80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.”

The anecdote was used to evoke reactions and gain support from the growing white conservative electorate. This extreme account of fraud fit the prevailing narrative of Black criminality and the desperate need to control an unrestrictive welfare state.

The story of Linda Taylor, real name Martha Miller, with her and her family listed on a 1930s census as “white,” was central to the political narrative of Black criminality and laziness of the 1970s that stood as a backlash to social movements and “War on Poverty” gains of the 1960s. Although there is truth to Taylor’s illegal activities — she lived a tumultuous life that allegedly also included murder and kidnapping — the politics of dismantling the welfare state and depicting her as a racially Black “welfare queen” narrowed the scope of court prosecution to solely welfare and social security fraud.

William C. Eckenberg/The New York Times —

In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor contends Reagan’s racially coded conservative discourse placed assumptive Black “strapping buck” and “welfare queen” at the center of extreme right mainstream politics.[i]

Bipartisan political attacks on the welfare state gained traction in the 1970s with the reemergence of “culture of poverty” and “personal responsibility” as popular explanations for Black deprivation.[ii] Although exhibited in the campaign and presidency of Richard Nixon within the same decade, this rhetoric became explicitly “colorblind” while positioned simultaneously as anti-Black and non-racial with references to criminal activities and social cues assumed to be Black. Black criminality fueled this discourse created to support the political propaganda and weighted legislation at the center of Reagan’s renewed War on Drugs and subsequent presidents tough on crime agendas.

The War on Drugs and mass incarceration has become politically less en vogue through popular conscious raising texts such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, a bevy of prison industrial complex activist organizations, and attention to the white “victims” of drugs and incarceration. Conservatives have now pushed the War on Terror and “illegal immigration” to the center of anti-Black and brown narrative of criminality and control.

The political sensationalism of former President Barack Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango — particularly by the current U.S. president, who after a rejection of asylum and bout of homelessness lived undocumented in public housing in Boston, MA, demonstrates the evolution of this anti-Black narrative to one focused on anundocumented welfare queen”.[iii]

This sensationalism is still prevalent today with the Trump Administration’s efforts to extend the Public Charge law, created by the Immigration Act of 1882 after the racialized Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In addition to willfully misinformed political rhetoric surrounding the law, it does threaten deportation or rejection of permanent residency for immigrants that have received any form of assistance from the state. This is highly problematic in situations of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The War on Terror and anti-immigration control are depicted by a spectrum of proponents and activists as an anti-brown “issue,” focusing on foreign nationals from Central America and Muslims from Middle Eastern nations. Onyango’s “American nightmare” demonstrates the intersection of undocumentedness and Blackness that has had an important impact on the persisting narrative of Black criminality and the continuously evolving viability of the prison industrial complex.

Anti-Blackness in Global Immigration Policy

In Globalized anti-Blackness: Transnationalizing Western immigration law, policy, and practice,Vilna Bashi assesses the multifaceted dimensions of anti-Blackness in global immigration policy. She asserts that “Western lawmakers’ denial of access to the privilege of immigration to phenotypically ‘Black’ persons from ‘Black’ nations functions as systemic and global anti-Blackness.”[iv]

Photo by Samarth Singhai from Pexels

Three important themed justifications supported by western governments–and integral to my examination — are cultural and biological inferiority; the transition to non-racial and colorblind language in the creation of anti-Black immigration policy and practice; and the reliance and recruitment of immigrants as temporary laborers through contract labor agreements.[v]

These same justifications were simultaneously constructed in the development of domestic policies that affected the lives of Black Americans. Anti-Blackness in particular and anti-brownness, in general, are central parts of international policy and the experiences of immigrants in the United States.

The historical and current realities of War on Drugs/ “Tough on Crime” policies and Black criminalization are merged with the War on Terror and anti-immigration border control. Black immigrants provide an important contribution to the systematic and intersectional ways that race and incarceration work in the United States. Although in both spaces citizen and noncitizen Black and brown bodies are hyper-criminalized and rendered to statelessness, the “War on Drugs”/ “Tough on Crime” is presented as a “Black American” issue and “War on Terror” as “brown” — brown meaning not of African descent.

Black immigrants, particularly foreign nationals, currently and historically have been relegated at the intersection of prosecutorial and policing practices of the Black citizenry. These individuals are a large part of a temporary foreign labor force whose efforts for U.S. citizenship is highly contested, controlled, and repressed.

This two-part article will demonstrate the following:

the current and historical realities of Black immigration versus the scholastic trend of focusing on Black immigrant success and conflict with “native” Black Americans;

the connection of Black criminalization and police brutality at the center of the #Blacklivesmatter movement and the expansion of the contemporary Black social movement to include Black people on the fringes of U.S. and Western societies;

and the evolution of the U.S. carcel system to expand immigrant detention and the criminalization of Black and brown immigration.

Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 — Origin Story

Originally, I began this intersectional history with the post-emancipation period and the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment, enacted in 1868, provided citizenship rights to African Americans based on birth in the United States, as well as created questions surrounding citizenship and naturalization for immigrants and newly arrived populations of color.

This historical trajectory differs from scholars who position the 13th amendment as the most integral legislation that moved the U.S. Black population from slavery to incarceration with little discussion about immigration-migration and criminalization. But in my intersection of “Black criminality” and racialized immigration laws, the 13th and 14th amendments — Reconstruction amendments— fall short in this origin story.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850 during the period of U.S. slavery, tells us more about the ideological underpinnings and brutal execution of border politics and the control of melanin-rich populations. This act mirrors the realities and circumstances of our current crisis: state established narratives of Black criminality, border control, self-exile of Black people to escape brutal systems, and the U.S. federal government’s role in providing financial and systemic support to state and local governments and laypeople to surveillance the physical movement of Black people and apprehend Black bodies to return across borders.

The Act buttressed the system of searching for, detaining, retrieving and returning “runaway slaves” — self-emancipated Black people — from “free states” to “slave states.” “Runaways” were undocumented, as they did not have the coveted “freedom papers” or were not manumitted with legal channels. The Act also provided financial resources to state and local actors, the police, and made the public culpable for harboring fugitives of slavery or not physically helping in the pursuit of fugitives of slavery.

Additionally, the law attempted to dismantle the interracial network of antislavery advocates and abolitionist activists of the Underground Railroad — which provide resources once self-emancipated and clandestine routes to free states. Black and abolitionist communities in northern free states were outrages and protested the law. They worked to create safe spaces for self-emancipated exiled communities — sanctuary cities, towns, neighborhoods, and/or block. These networks disempower U.S. Marshals, white citizen “slave catchers,” and the police.

Starting with the 1850 law demonstrates the parallels and systemic alignment of borders, systemic and financial incentives for criminalizing Black bodies, and activism around protecting exiled/refugee communities.

On a theoretical level, the 1850 law also provides an integral intervention of migration and border crossing as part of the Black American experience in an earlier period than the Great Migration (1900 to 1970). It creates an important analysis of immigration/migration as a Black issue, not solely because of current Black immigration — but due to ideological and system foundations of border patrol attached to Black bodies in the United States.

Underground Railroad, Wikimedia Commons

My understanding is that the first undocumented people in the United States were Black refugees fleeing southern slave states for “freedom”. This long-standing lineage of surveilling and detaining Black people in migration/movement locally, regionally, and transnationally is vital to our understanding of foundational infrastructure used to repress migrating Black and brown Indigenous People of Color in the United States.

Anti-Blackness and White Supremacy in U.S. Immigration Law

The 14th Amendment of 1868, providing citizenship rights to African Americans based on birth in the United States, created questions surrounding citizenship and naturalization for immigrants and newly arrived populations of color. Certain categories of people became excludable starting in 1875 (targeting Chinese women migrants as sex workers). In 1891 a law was put in place for immigrant deportation through the newly formed Office of Superintendent of Immigration created and placed in the US Treasury Department.[vi]

The African American Policy Forum,

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 codified and regulated immigration forming an excludible and deportable class directly and indirectly based on race. This included Chinese contract workers, sex workers, and “convicted criminals”. [vii] Stringent immigration legislation of 1907, 1917, 1918, and 1921 culminated into the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the nation’s first comprehensive immigration restriction law.[viii]

The legislation instituted a quota system organized by a global racial and national hierarchy that favored western and northern European immigrants. In addition to low quotas placed on eastern and southern European countries, the act also excluded Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and other Asian countries from immigration “on grounds that they were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship, a condition that was declared by the Supreme Court in the early 1920s.”[ix] The 1924 act initiated the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol within the Bureau of Immigration.

Blumenbach’s five races, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach — Treatise on “De generis humani varietate nativa,” unnumbered page at the end of the book titled “Tab II”, 1795, Wikimedia Commons

Although non-European countries were not granted quotas and the language of national quotas did not specifically deny Black entry in the 1920s, Vilna Bashi suggests that the Senate Report 1515, which provided much of the research Congressmen used to decide the law, was based on Blumenbach’s 1775 On the Natural Variety of Mankind.[x] According to Bashi, “scientific racism was used to deny entry to all ‘inferior races’ on grounds that ‘immigrants’ poor performance [was attributable] to Negroid strains inherent in their biological character.’”[xi] This eugenicist racial logic was also attached to notions about hygiene, health, and the spread of diseases.

Additionally, the 1923 Supreme Court ruling of U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind defined Americanness and naturalization through the framework of white supremacy and racial exclusion.

Although restrictive and hierarchical, the 1921 and 1924 Acts established Europeans as valid and lawful immigrants.

As many Western Hemispheric nations were colonial entities, Black immigrants from the Caribbean often entered the US as British subjects or through U.S. neocolonial ties.[xii] Under this loophole, 143,797 voluntary Black immigrants entered the U.S between 1899 and 1937.[xiii]

To stop the use of the British quota by Black immigrants, racial preferences were instituted within this quota system with an ancestry test for admission eligibility.[xiv]

In 1917, Puerto Ricans became citizens of the United States with the Jones Act. And in 1927 and 1932, the U.S. Virgin Islands was granted U.S. citizenship. Black people from these islands migrated to metropoles in the United States during this period. In addition to using the British quota and migrating as temporary workers for U.S. corporations in the Spanish speaking circum-Caribbean and Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean populations also traveled through Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to “lawfully” migrate to the United States.

Portrait of Arturo A. Schomburg, 1910, Black Puerto Rican Historian, Scholar, Black Cultural Activist, Wikimedia Commons

Black Latinx immigration is also an integral part of this narrative. Black migrants from Latin America entered the U.S. as apart of Great Migration waves from the turn of the 20th century. For example, a third of the 19,000 Cubans that migrated to New York in 1930 were Afro-Cubans.[xv]

The Bracero Program and “Forced Repatriation”

By Neon Tommy — Deportation, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Services was established. Immigrants and migrants of color were targeted by illegal and unconstitutional raids and deportations in the late 1920s and early 1930s. From 1929 to 1936 under Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, forced Mexican repatriation of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans altered the lives of as many as 1.8 million men, women, and children. In 1940, The INS transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice pre-empting wartime recruitment of agricultural workers from borderlands under the Bracero Program.

Although these limitations of Black and brown immigration were put in place, in the 1940s and 1950s, large influxes of immigrants and migrants were able to enter the United States under the Bracero Program. In addition to mainly recruiting Mexicans, this program targeted Caribbean countries for agricultural labor needs in the north (Connecticut and Upstate New York) and south (Florida). Specifically, Black English-speaking Caribbean islands comprised 17 percent of the 400,000 workers that migrated under the Bracero program between 1942 and 1945. [xvi]

Black Radicals and Deportation

Black immigrants, particularly activists and radicals, also faced increased scrutiny and deportation during this period. In 1923, Marcus Garvey, Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder and Black leader, was indicted by the U.S. government for mail fraud. Convicted in 1923, Garvey was jailed in an Atlanta federal penitentiary in February 1925, where he served three years of a five-year sentence. In 1927, Garvey was unjustly deported from the United States returning to Jamaica.

Marcus Garvey, 1924, Wikimedia Commons

During World War II and up to the enactment of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 or the Immigration and Nationality Act, although Black immigration from English-speaking Caribbean islands to the United States increased, wartime/Cold War era acts intensified repression of Black immigrants particularly activists.

First targeting Nazi party members and sympathizers, The Smith Act of 1940 or the Alien Registration Act (similar to the Smith Act of 1918) made it illegal to advocate or be a member of an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government. This affected Black immigrants associated with communism and socialism and Black activists in general. The Act broadly defined “overthrow” and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the federal government.

The McCarran Internal Security Act, also known as the “Internal Security Act of 1950,” was an anti-Communist act that placed heavy restrictions on immigration and strengthened the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924. Specifically, the Act prohibited colonial subjects from using the home country quotas and reduced the colonies to quotas of 100 per year, thus cutting off the option of legal immigration for most Black immigrants and migrants.[xvii]

Black activists and leftist radicals were deported under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.

C.L.R James

Incarcerated at Ellis Island during his deportation proceeding, Trinidad-born luminary historian and activist C.L.R James, known widely as the author of The Black Jacobins (1938), was deported from the U.S. in 1953.

Claudia Jones, 1950, Wikimedia Commons

In 1951, Trinidad-born communist leader Claudia Jones was arrested and charged under the Smith Act. Using features of the McCarran-Walter Act, Jones was found guilty and sentenced to one year and one day in jail and a $2000 fine. She was incarcerated at a Federal Reformatory for women in West Virginia and then given the “option” to self-repatriate.

These acts were also used against Black American activists, such as Paul Robeson, whose passports were seized and were placed under surveillance.

Civil Rights era Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act)

American immigration law was transformed in 1965 with the Civil Rights era Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act) through the removal of racial quotas and the substitution of visa preference system with 170,000 annual limits for the Eastern Hemisphere and a quota of 20,000 legal immigrants per nation.[xviii]

This lifted restrictions and family reunification quickly impacted black immigration to the United States from 1965 to the present period.

Most scholarship on black immigration focuses on post-Civil Right period due to the exponential increase of black immigration during this period. In “Black Immigrants: The Experience of Invisibility and Inequality,” Roy Simon Bryce-Laporte addresses the double invisibility of black immigrants. His article written in 1972 suggests that of the 373,326 incoming immigrants in the year 1970, 38,380 (10%) emigrated from predominantly black countries.[xix]

Although a majority of these immigrants came from Anglophone Caribbean countries, Bryce-Laporte demonstrates that the number of immigrants from Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico doubled, and an exponential increase in immigrants from the African continent. Although he writes of the political invisibility in the temporal framing of the early 1970s, his writing can connect to historiographical invisibility in the African American narrative.

H2A (agricultural) and H2B (unskilled) temporary guest worker programs

The Hart-Celler Act still placed numerical limits on the migration of people of color from the Global South. As these limits were put into practice, H2A (agricultural) and H2B (unskilled) temporary guest worker programs provided legal opportunities for short-term and semi-permanent immigration. But just as in the Bracero program and early iterations of the H2 programming, it was common practice for employers to over-work, abuse and cheat their employees out of wages.

In No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor, Cindy Hahamovitch contends that in the U.S. context the urban rebellions of the 1960s occur simultaneously with the rebellions and strikes among poor, Black, Caribbean workers in the sugar cane field of the American South with the biggest occurring in 1968.

Strikes amongst authorized H2 workers resulted in mass deportation and loss of earned wages. To replace workers, companies would hire undocumented immigrants. Hahamovitch explains that the undocumented of the 1970s and 1980s were a diverse group: “Among them were tens of thousands of Haitians who had been denied asylum but stayed anyway, smaller numbers of Central Americans, and many, many Mexicans.”[xx] She also explains the diplomatic and racial context of undocumented Haitians:

Like Cubans, Haitians had come to Florida by boats and rafts to escape poverty and oppression, but unlike Cubans, they had the misfortune of having fled an allied rather than an enemy dictatorship. While Cubans won asylum, Green Cards… Haitians who made the mistake of showing up for their immigration hearings were imprisoned in Krome Detention Center …Denied asylum for the most part, thousands of Haitians joined the farmworker migrant stream.[xxi]

The racial preference for white Cubans and disdain for Fidel Castro’s communist regime allowed for overt racism in the handling of Haitian refugees escaping the U.S. supported Haitian dictatorship.

Additionally, in the early 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the US Center for Disease Control and prominent Public Health officials unfairly categorized residents of Haiti and Haitians in the United States as a part of AIDS high-risk groups. Although internationally controversial and contested by Haitian medical experts and Black people in the U.S. as a serious mistake, U.S. health officials defended their research methods and insist their categorization was correct.[xxii]

“On April 20, 1990 over 100,000 Haitians poured across the Brooklyn Bridge and flooded downtown Manhattan to protest the recommendation by the FDA to exclude all people from Haiti from donating blood,”

Although removed from the CDC list in 1985, the Federal Drug Administration recommended in February 1990 that Haitians be restricted from donating blood again because they were supposedly a high-risk group for AIDS.

The anti-black narrative at the root of this categorization is still prominent today. Netflix’s History 101 documentary series retraced the history of the virus and disease from Africa to the United States and placed Haiti at the center of the epidemic.[xxiii]In June 2020, the episode was removed after high profiled protests and campaigns.

The migration experience of Haitian immigrants is just one example of systemic racism and anti-blackness in U.S. immigration policy. Systemic anti-blackness creates a constant stream of undocumented migrants and immigrants in the U.S.

Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

The last major strike of H2 sugar cane workers occurred in November 1986, the same month the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed by Congress. In addition to restrictions and expansion of the H2 program, IRCA provided amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants.

All H2 positions were given amnesty except sugar cane cutters — the majority being Black workers from the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean countries. Three million immigrants become legal under the IRCA’s provisions, 2.3 million Mexican immigrants, and 700,000 non-Mexicans.[xxiv] The 700,000 included many Black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries.[xxv]

The 1986 law also made it illegal to employ a worker without proper documents, while leaving employers virtually immune to prosecution.[xxvi] The law did not reduce the number of undocumented workers but exposed vulnerable workers to greater exploitation.[xxvii]

In the mid-1990s the criminal justice system became increasingly punitive, in addition to War on Drugs, “Three-Strikes” and Truth in Sentencing legislation, immigration policy became more retaliatory toward undocumented communities.

According to the Panel on the Integration of Immigrants into American Society for The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in 2015 an estimated 11.3 million (26%) of the foreign-born in the U.S. were undocumented. The majority of undocumented residents are Mexican nationals (52 percent).

As one in ten undocumented immigrants comes from Asia, more than three-quarters are from North and Central America.[xxviii] While undocumented immigration from Mexico has decreased, the number of undocumented immigrants from Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) crossing through Mexico to the United States has increased to an estimated 400,000 people every year.[xxix] There is also an increase in African migrants crossing Central America for the U.S./Mexican border to seek asylum.

In addition to travel through Puerto Rico, migrants from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti pass through the U.S./Mexican border.[xxx] Although the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT) included a new category of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), offering temporary protection and work authorization to immigrants from countries affected by war or a natural disaster (the case of El Salvador, Sierra Leone, and Haiti), loss of the status can create undocumented communities.[xxxi]

Migrants leave their countries due to a variety of circumstances, such as climate and environmental crises, economic collapse, neocolonialism, U.S. military, and industrial intervention, and war. In turn, United States employers benefit from the low-wage labor attained from undocumented and migrant workers, as well as U.S. consumers of low-cost goods and services.[xxxii]

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

The criminalization of legal status also has significant benefits for the private prison system which is allied with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE was formed under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, under the Bush Administration as apart of the U.S. post 9/11 War on Terror. Although only 18 years old, this iteration of border control has a one-hundred-fifty year history.

Immigration enforcement jobs in the prison industry cost the U.S. government $74 billion dollars a year and in 2011 employed eight hundred thousand people.[xxxiii] Aviva Chomsky notes the racial criminalization within the anti-immigration climate: “in 2011, 93 percent of federal immigration crimes were committed by noncitizens, and 89.3 percent of them were committed by Hispanics.”[xxxiv]

Private prisons specialize disproportionately in detaining immigrants. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, leading private prison companies, jointly own 100 facilities with 100,000 beds.[xxxv] As these corporations are publicly traded on the U.S. stock market, CCA Securities and Exchange Commission 10-K statement states:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities…The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws…any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced …[xxxvi]

The private prison industry has a vested financial interest in increasing both the criminalization of immigrants and the drug wars that disproportionately criminalize Black people. With the persistence of racial profiling and litany of arrestable offenses (from jaywalking to jumping a subway turnstile), documented and undocumented immigrants are actively targeted by the criminal justice system and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Photo by Kendall Hoopes from Pexels

The current sitting U.S. President has built his campaign promises and administration around anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. He signed three executive orders the week of January 23, 2017, the most controversial being a Muslim country ban that suspended visas and heightens the immigration processes affecting refugees and visa holders from African countries of Sudan and Somalia.

These orders also addressed border security and interior enforcement by providing federal dollars and infrastructure for the construction of a Mexican-U.S. border wall and additional Border Patrol personnel; public charge inquiries; and increased construction of detention facilities and detention of immigrants.

These executive orders are the foundation of successive orders, laws, and campaigns meant to criminalize immigrants of color. Enforcement priorities aligned with the president’s pledge to deport 2–3 million persons have significantly increased the number of ICE agents and conduct nationwide raids and sweeps.

This includes targeting immigrants within the courts or that are correctional controlled via incarceration, probation, and parole. Permanent Resident green cardholders can also be targeted for deportation if convicted of a federal crime and serving time in prison. Many immigrants are triaged from serving their full sentences and being granted parole to ICE detention facilities to await deportation.

The Trump Administration's most recent restriction on visas for nationals of Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania, open comments about immigration from Black majority “shithole” countries, and initiation of public charge inquiries have renewed the anti-black political stance on immigration.

“The Current State of Black Immigrants in the United States”

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration’s 2017 publication, “The Current State of Black Immigrants in the United States,” states there are approximately 5 million foreign-born Black individuals living in the U.S. Black immigrants account for approximately 10% of the nation’s Black population.[xxxvii] Although 84% of Black immigrants live in the United States with authorization, 16% of all Black immigrants — or estimated 575,000 people — live in the United States without authorization.

Between 2000 and 2013, the total number of unauthorized African and Caribbean immigrant population climbed from 389,000 to 602,000, an increase of 162%. In addition to racial prejudice in policing, in a post-9/11-Trump era, Black immigrants (particularly African Muslims) are increasingly susceptible to surveillance and contact with the U.S. criminal justice system. For undocumented Black immigrants, this surveillance and contact lead to disproportionate levels of incarceration and deportation.

RAICES recently produced a comprehensive portrait of the issues facing Black immigrants and asylum seekers in the United States, particularly amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Black immigrants are numerical overrepresented in detention centers where they experience longer stays and increased instances of solitary confinement. In addition to having the second-highest denial rate at 87% from 2012–2017 (in the years before that period, Jamaicans had the highest asylum denial rate), the U.S. has consistently detained more Haitian families in 2020 than any other nationality. Although 7% of non-citizens in the U.S. are Black, Black immigrants are 20% of those facing deportation on criminal grounds.

RAICES concludes with “over-policing of Black people means more Black immigrants end up in ICE’s hands, many slated for deportation because of minor offenses.”


The #Blacklivesmatter movement and organizations such as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Dream Defenders, African Communities Together, Haitian Bridge Alliance, and UndocuBlack have served an essential role in connecting the various facilitators of criminalization that feed mass incarceration. Black Lives Matter activism centers Black community members at the fringes — LGBTQ, incarcerated, disabled, immigrant, and migrant. Opal Tometi, one of the three leaders that coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and founded the BLM movement, is a queer Nigerian American human rights activist.

On Jun. 7, over 2,000 protesters in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. Photo Credit: Kim Ives/Haiti Liberté

According to decades of scholarship produced in academia on Black immigration, Black immigrants have evoked an “elevated status” that made them socio-economically more successful than African Americans and has limited their connection with the African American polity. In addition to the simplicity and falsity of this theory, as it connects to the paralleled and persistent theory of degraded Black pathology and adverse acculturation to (white) American cultural norms. Scholars and researchers have not explored the multitude of experiences of Black immigrants within the framework of undocumentedness.

National Academy of Sciences’ 2015 report on the integration of immigrants into American society chaired by Mary Waters has complicated these early assumptions. The report shows that immigrants are “more likely to be poor than the native-born, even though their labor force participation rates are higher and they work longer hours on average.” More importantly, the report notes a “troubling rise in poverty for the Black second+ generations relative to the Black first generation.”

Although recent scholarship has been on the right track of engaging Black immigration and the prison industrial complex, activist organizations (many youth-led) have engaged directly in grassroots work. These organizations and activists address issues in the academic literature, such as the realities of multi-status families and the trauma disappearing family and community members; immigrants as essential workers and apart of the growing numbers of COVID-19 related deaths; police killing and brutality of Black immigrants; and undocumented youth and their experiences advocating for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the proposed DREAM Act.

Making Black immigrants, especially temporary work visa holders and the undocumented, visible is a vital connective piece in merging the historical and current realities of War on Drugs/ “Tough on Crime” policies and Black criminalization with the War on Terror and anti-immigration border control.

To conclude, Black Lives Matter — Defund I.C.E.



Lisa Betty

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.