After record-breaking levels of detentions and deportations under the Obama Administration, immigration reform is finally gaining traction across the nation due to bipartisan support. When President Obama met with progressive immigration leaders last week to tackle the issue, the groups represented at the conference – United We Stand, the National Council of La Raza – were almost entirely Latino. Even the NAACP, that old stalwart of Black rights, has framed immigration reform as a Latino issue, building coalitions with increasingly powerful Latino groups. For this generation, immigrants in America have been painted as a decidedly Latino, leaving non-Latino Black immigrants feeling marginalized and voiceless even as we face the consequences of the last four years of an increasingly sweeping and punitive immigration system.
It’s not the strength of the Latino coalitions that have kept Black immigrants out of the national immigration debate, Instead, it is the weakness of our own splintered voices functioning as individual ethnic organizations instead of a unified coalition. Whereas Latinos seem to have largely succeeded in creating a unified front on immigration reform, Black immigrant groups still struggle to organize around a set of common goals.
This fractured approach became painfully evident when the Administration resumed deportations to Haiti exactly one year after the catastrophic earthquake and amidst a cholera epidemic. Haitian organizations lobbied for relief in the form of Temporary Protected Status (TPS). At the same time, Liberian organizations were separately seeking the renewal of their TPS. The political clout of a coalition able to represent both the Liberian and Haitian community for the exact same status would’ve been unprecedented-unfortunately, no such organization existed. “This has been a wake-up call,” says Marleine Bastien, founder of the advocacy group Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women in Miami). As someone who has been working on immigration reform for almost 20 years, Bastien was “caught off guard by the recent momentum of the Latinos.”
Unlike Latinos, Black immigrants often fall victim to the same residual stereotypes of poverty and criminality that continue to plague African-Americans. The current record-breaking detentions and deportations have swept up undocumented immigrants, legal residents, and criminals alike. Black immigrants consistently place on the top 10 list of most-deported foreign nationals, even though they constitute only 11% of the US immigrant population (Black people as a whole make up 13% of the U.S. population). In 2012, 6,510 Caribbean nationals were deported to their countries of origin, a higher per capita deportation level than Latinos. Although the Administration has created the illusion that these are all hardened criminals, the reality is that over 55% of them are people arrested for misdemeanors such as traffic violations, small amounts of marijuana, or simply over-staying their visas (a civil offense).
For most immigrants of Caribbean and African descent, immigration status has shaped our American experience while navigated the post- 9/11 bureaucracy of DHS and carrying green cards as lifelines in case we were pulled over by a police officer that couldn’t pronounce our name. But our failure to speak out collectively as Black immigrants could have far-reaching consequences, leaving us disparate and disorganized while other groups gain preferential treatment. As the Latino community continues to humanize the immigration debate and legitimize claims for reform, Black immigrant must use this momentum to form broad coalitions and produce a seat at the table. If we allow this historic opportunity to pass because of our own inability to see ourselves in one another’s experience, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.