The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and New York University Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic have released a groundbreaking two-part report shedding light on an often overlooked community: the nation’s 3.7 million Black immigrants.
Historically, immigration hasn’t been considered from a race perspective, said Carl Lipscombe, BAJI’s policy and legal manager and co-author of the report, in a phone interview with Rewire. Lipscombe explained that immigrants’ rights organizations and policymakers often see it as a “Latino issue,” leading to the erasure of Black immigrants. This might be because Latino migrants represent a significant portion of the immigrant population in the United States. For example, Mexican immigrants account for approximately 28 percent of the 42.4 million foreign-born in the United States, making them the largest immigrant group in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But as advocates, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, have noted, “there are half a million black folks living within the United States in the shadows” and subject to deportation.
To paint a clearer picture of this demographic, part one of The State of Black Immigrants includes statistical data on the size of the population and the various birth countries of Black immigrants. The report’s authors note that individuals from African and Caribbean countries comprise a bulk of the Black immigrant population, and that Jamaica is the top country of origin, followed by Haiti. Black immigrants are highly concentrated in New York state, with African immigrants immigrating to the United States more recently than other Black people and those from the Caribbean generally having deeper roots in the United States.
The report’s authors compiled the information using data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Census data, while also relying on self-reporting from immigrant communities. This is because USCIS does not track immigration data by race; its data reflects countries of origin, but not how many migrants are Black.
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Lipscombe told Rewire that it would be “incredibly helpful” for USCIS to track immigration data by race for a variety of reasons, including accountability of the U.S. immigration system.
“Our analysis shows that Black immigrants that appear before an immigration judge are more likely than their counterparts to be detained and deported. Unfortunately, this isn’t tracked by race, which makes it almost impossible to hold immigration courts and immigration judges accountable,” Lipscombe said. “It’s really difficult to ascertain the number of Black immigrants in the country and even harder to develop policies that specifically address Black immigrants and the resources they need.”
This lack of data only exacerbates the problem of erasure facing Black immigrants, whom advocates say are overlooked by mainstream advocacy organizations at both the grassroots and national level.
Lipscombe noted that this population often isn’t included in the fight for racial equality. “Even when we look at the racial justice movement, or when we hear civil rights leaders discuss racial profiling, injustice, and criminalization, they focus on African Americans, as if criminalization is only an African-American issue. The reality is that policing impacts Black immigrants deeply,” Lipscombe said.
The Movement for Black Lives has made ending “the war on Black immigrants” a central tenet of its platform. Primarily, the movement wants to repeal the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, known together as “the 1996 laws.” As noted by the authors of the Movement for Black Lives’ policy agenda, these laws “expanded the grounds for deportation to include more than 20 offenses, both criminal and noncriminal under state law.”
BAJI played a role in the movement’s focus on immigration, as its executive director, Opal Tometi, is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Tometi has contributed to efforts directed at educating the public on the 1996 laws, which have disproportionately affected Black immigrant communities.
Part two of BAJI’s report also details the aftermath of these laws, including the fact that “[a]lthough Black immigrants comprise just 5.4% of the unauthorized population in the United States, and 7.2% of the total noncitizen population, they made up a striking 10.6% of all immigrants in removal proceedings between 2003 and 2015.”
“I don’t think people are at all aware of how those [1996 immigration] laws affected Black immigrant communities,” Lipscombe said. “BAJI has been working to bring attention to these laws, especially during this election year and as it’s the laws’ 20th anniversary. People are coming around to understanding that Black immigrants are not often deported because of unlawful entry, but rather criminal convictions, and that there’s an extra level of education needed to understand where these laws originated.”
The State of Black Immigrants also details how immigration enforcement policies put into place by the Obama administration continue to affect Black immigrant communities, including the controversial Priority Enforcement Program. That program requires local law enforcement to submit biometric data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from any undocumented immigrant who commits a criminal violation.
“President Obama infamously said he was deporting ‘felons, not families,’ but the definition of ‘felon’ under U.S. immigration law is very broad,” Lipscombe told Rewire. “Despite the rhetoric we hear from elected officials, many of those facing deportations haven’t been convicted of a crime.”
Lipscombe said that in some places, the possession of marijuana is no longer a crime and results in nothing more than a ticket with a nominal fee. For immigrants, however, a couple of these types of minor violations become a deportable defense.
“Minor offenses like these are why Black immigrants get deported,” he said. “Many Black immigrants live in communities that are subject to heavy policing; they are more likely to get arrested one, two, or three times over a given period. Depending on when they’re arrested or the type of offense they’re arrested for, they can end up in immigrant detention and deported.”
BAJI’s report asserts that the “immigration system must be upended and redesigned to ensure that those entering the United States seeking work, refuge, or reunification with their families and communities, are treated fairly and with dignity.” Part of that requires repealing the 1996 immigration laws, he added. The other piece of that, as noted in The State of Black Immigrants, includes improving the qualify of life for Black immigrants by advancing programs at the federal, state, and local levels.
Lipscombe said a great deal of local work has to be done in terms of funneling resources into Black immigrant communities, creating a safety net for those already here. That safety net would include legal services, job assistance, and workforce development specifically geared toward Black immigrants.
“Erasure of Black immigrants results in resources not going toward Black immigrants or Black immigrant communities. Inevitably, it results in elected officials not engaging Black immigrants and not advocating for policies that would benefit Black immigrants,” Lipscombe said. “Black immigrants also need all of the things that African Americans do, including affordable housing, good qualify education, [and] jobs. There is a lot of need, but what isn’t needed is more policing in these communities. Immigrant communities, Black communities, Black immigrant communities—they’re all overpoliced. What’s needed is resources going into services that actually make communities healthier and safer.”