Patrice Lawrence of the UndocuBlack Network explains how U.S. policies are impacting Black immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Black immigrants make up a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. The Pew Research Center estimates 1 in 10 Black people living in the U.S. is an immigrant. While immigration coverage over the last year has focused largely on the experiences of Ukrainian refugees and Latino migrants, Borderless wanted to also help tell the stories, challenges and triumphs of more Black immigrants.
The Black diaspora in the United States is ethnically, linguistically and economically diverse. It includes Afro Latino people, who can trace their roots back to Africa, who come to the United States from the Caribbean and Latin America. It also includes Africans who came directly from the continent or from countries in Europe and Asia.
To help show the diversity of Black immigrants living in Chicago and the challenges they are facing here, Borderless is launching a new series: Black Immigrants Today. Reported and photographed by four members of Black immigrant communities in Chicago, our team spent over four months talking to community members and organizations like RefugeeOne, United African Organization, GirlForward, and the Haitian American Museum of Chicago. Those organizations helped them start talking to folks who had immigrated from Senegal, Togo, Haiti, and more in January. And we look forward to sharing their stories with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you’ll hear from some of them throughout this Q & A.
To help us see the bigger picture of Black immigration, Borderless spoke to Patrice Lawrence, executive director of the UndocuBlack Network. The UndocuBlack Network builds community and facilitates access to resources for current and formerly undocumented Black people. The organization also works with members of Congress and organizations like the Movement for Black Lives to combat stereotypes about Black immigrants and advocate for anti-racist policies. It has members across the U.S. in more than 25 states, and hubs in New York and D.C.
Lawrence talked to Borderless about the experiences that unite Black immigrants and Americans, U.S. policies driving detention and deportation, and how Black immigrants are building power.
Given their diversity, what unites Black immigrants and their experiences in the United States?
The ways that the systems and oppressive systems see us. We talk about the fact that regardless of how we feel about our groups of people, the United States government is very united in how they see Black people. And they don’t care if you’re an immigrant, or if you native born, or if you have five generations of family here, or five centuries, all the way from being enslaved on this land, and stolen from Africa and brought to continental United States. They treat us and they play on us in different ways. And this shows up, particularly in policy, which is a passion of mine.
“I was shocked that people pay so much attention to race here. The first thing that people notice about you in America is your skin. In America, anyone who looks Black is lumped together into one group. I always say, if the police pull you over, they’re not going to ask, ‘Are you African or African American?’ Your identity doesn’t matter. Your self-worth doesn’t matter. It’s as if race is weaponized here.”
— Lillian Ingabire from Zambia
For example, the Trump administration had continued with something called the public charge rule, which is a rule that’s been around for many years. It’s a racist rule that looks at how much money you make, it looks at your family size, it looks at your age, and it determines if you’re going to be what they call a “public charge” on the United States government. Are you going to be a strain on the economy? And it can impact whether or not you get citizenship, or green cards.
What unique challenges do Black immigrants face when it comes to immigrant detention and deportation?
Basically, we face challenges that are unique to the skin that we’re in. And of course, the more melanated the skin, the more targeted that folks tend to be. The heavier the accent, the more targeted you tend to be. And that shows up in detention.
What also shows up in detention is that some of our countries have been forced by the United States government to comply in different ways, including in international policies. So they will be quicker to turn against their own citizens, to accept people who the United States wants to deport.
I’m thinking about places like Jamaica, like a lot of places in the Caribbean, that will cooperate with the United States and have done so. And so there’s those folks who are quick to detain, easy to deport and it becomes easy for folks to not have their rights complied with or not have attorneys who are actually fighting for them. We don’t have a lot of attorneys who are specific to Black immigrants, or who are open to work with Black immigrants in detention and are looking for them.
A lot of our countries, because of U.S. influence, will not allow us to fight detention and deportation here in the United States.
[During Trump’s Muslim ban] we saw folks being deported to Mauritania and not being able to stay there due to the conditions and historically the way that Black Mauritanians have been treated there. And then we saw folks fleeing to Senegal. That’s when country matters. That’s when language matters. That’s when ethnicity matters, because it can complicate how someone enters the law enforcement system and enters the immigration system and how they exit. And what it means for them afterwards to get any form of reprieve or relief.
“I was being discriminated against as a gay man in Morocco. I couldn’t share my true identity as I was. I was afraid of being persecuted. So as in Senegal, I was bullied so many times for acting the way I acted.”
How do Black immigrants compare to other types of immigrants in the relief they can get from the U.S. government?
Humanitarian parole, for instance, is something that the United States government has discretion to grant in many, many, many, many ways, some that are public, and some that are not. When you look at who gets it, it’s primarily not Black majority countries, it is primarily non-Black people. When you look at the hoops and hurdles that people have to go through, it is primarily not helpful for Black people.
It’s similar to the situation with the diversity visa. The government, whether under Biden, Trump, or Obama keeps making autonomous pathways to migrate to this country — that are very popular for African folks — more and more difficult.
And they do it under the guise of national security and wanting to be careful about fraud and all these things. But we think it boils down to racism, and it boils down to cutting off routes for people to be autonomous and to have any form of firm footing and establishment in the United States. I think the government benefits from the Black immigrant population being unstable, they benefit to their detriment, and it does align with their racist system.
What are some of the factors driving immigration from Africa and from the Caribbean to the United States?
I think in the past decade or so, if we were to zoom out and we talk about things like climate change, and we talk about globalization, and we talk about the ways in which the lands we come from are robbed and pillaged, and our governments are not allowed to be autonomous or sovereign, then we have pretty predictable patterns of what happens to people. People are forced to migrate, people are forced to find other ways to survive, to thrive and folks are forced to look for opportunity elsewhere.
If you look at the way the United States government operates in other places of the world, they have followed policies — that began in the ‘60s and before that, thinking of the big stick policy and other things for other presidents — that basically had the United States as the caretaker for the developing world. And what that has meant is exposure to the United States and to meddling and interference from the United States. There’s no secret about the implications that that has had, some positive, but many, many things, not positive.
I zoom out like that to say then, the migratory patterns of folks from continental Africa or folks of that origin, doesn’t become too hard to grasp, when you think about all those factors pushing people to the United States.
“There will be a lot of sweat, tears and blood to live the American dream. It’s easier to navigate around obstacles if you know what you’re doing. But, you don’t know what you don’t know. How can you succeed?”
— Yolande Sanvi from Togo
How does the legacy of slavery in the United States impact immigration policy and Black immigration today?
In a lot of ways pretty directly. The thing that I mentioned earlier, called public charge, it’s linked to slavery. It’s linked to policies that were developed prior about Black people and about the narrative that is told about who Black people are. That we are poor, that we’re lazy, that we are not competent. These are all the narratives that have shown up in our policy. And that’s not unique to immigration.
If we zoom back out again, and we talk about mortality rates in this country, we talk about poor Black maternal health in this country, people who are immigrants and Black immigrants are implicated in that number.
Slavery was fairly recent. We talk about show me your papers and these other laws that basically allow CBP to stop anyone near the border and ask them to show their nationality and their citizenship. The police system in America came straight from slavery and the need for that was to protect white property and to protect white bodies. And so that is the root of policing in the United States. And so the way that immigration enforcement has moved is borrowed from that root. And the places they look to, for training, also follow such a cycle.
Historically, that’s been the situation. The way we do detention currently in the United States is very specific to Black people. Detention did not look like this in the early 1980s. And the expansion of it, the way they do it, how punitive it is, began first with Haitian migrants who were coming more in the 1980s. And that is how this current detention layout was built, out of the policies that are tied directly to slavery.
Talk about the relationship of Black immigrants and Black Americans today. How are they working together or not?
What we have found is, sometimes on the surface, it doesn’t seem as if our communities are working together. Often with conversations and digging a little deeper, you do see it. I think we face similar yet different challenges.
We are working against a propaganda machine that says that we are not alike, and Black immigrants are given favoritism or different types of treatments, and that has told immigrants all sorts of derogatory stories and terms like Reagan’s welfare queen narrative, which still lives on today.
And we know that that is intentional. And we know that that is made up to keep our families and our communities apart.
“It was a big decision to make. Leaving your home country where you have your friends and family, it’s not very easy. When people ask you to integrate, I think it’s very disrespectful. ‘You have to leave your head in Haiti,’ or however they put it. I think it’s very difficult to say that to a person coming here. When somebody immigrates to another place, I don’t think they’re trying to wash away their memories. I think you can evolve and become a better person, but not forget who you are.”
— Jean Yves Hector from Haiti
In what ways are Black immigrants building power today?
We continue to advocate for things like Temporary Protected Status and other ways that folks can get a reprieve from detention and deportation, as well as work permits so that they’re able to thrive here.
Black immigrants are fighting back by owning the ways that we keep ourselves healthy. We have a program here at UndocuBlack called Ayanda. It is a program that is really important for people across the United States to be connected with each other and to have peer-to-peer involvement to reduce isolation. Isolation and loneliness are big problems for anyone and even bigger problems for Black immigrants and migrants.
We’re fighting our own deportation and creating systems that allow us to learn our rights, to advocate for our rights and to build more policies that serve us, particularly in the places that we live, so that it is not so easy to snatch us up, and to take us away and kidnap us from our families and our friends.
*Borderless Magazine is using a pseudonym for Max due to concerns for his safety and privacy.
** This Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.