Undesirable: Black prejudice in U.S. immigration

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Henry Ibe

The fight for immigrants is a fight for America. But if it is not obvious, not all immigrants are created equal so to speak. 

Case in point, examine the treatment of Haitian migrants along the Rio Grande border in 2021, and the treatment that has been afforded to Ukraine refugees in 2022. This example makes it apparent that there are immigrants that the United States is willing to accept because they are white, and then, there are people of color that are considered undesirable. This obvious disparity, mostly fueled by black prejudice only perpetuates the narrative of “shithole” countries coined by the previous administration.

While the immigrant hardship, oppression, and trauma should not be compared, the vastly different treatment of immigrants in the United States based on race is worth shedding a light on. 

Black people are a growing portion of the immigrant population in the U.S. There are an estimated four million Black immigrants in the U.S., including at least half a million who are undocumented, according to Pew Research Center. Furthermore, Black immigrants now make up at least 10 percent of the Black population and 8.7 percent of all non-citizens in the U.S.

Black immigrants are confronted with the same disproportionate racial profiling, harassment, and arrests by police as are Black Americans. In almost every incident with law enforcement, they are stereotyped as the hostile actors, the antagonist, the perpetrators, or instigators, and deemed guilty until proven innocent.

For Black immigrants, there seems to be a conspiracy against them by the criminal justice system and the immigration system. The prison to deportation pipeline may sound like a myth or folktale to some, but for Black immigrants it is reality. Even though Black immigrants make up less than 9 percent of the undocumented population, they make up more than 20 percent of all immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds or alleged criminal offenses, according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). As a result of existing policies in society, a Black immigrant’s contact with law enforcement inevitably brings about imprisonment, then detention, and eventually deportation. BAJI also found that among immigrants, Black immigrants are nearly three times more likely to be detained and deported for all alleged criminal offenses. 

The policies under the previous administration escalated the prejudice against Black immigrants. 

Trump’s Muslim ban restricted nationals from seven African countries from coming to the United States. Other anti-immigrant policies severely impacted Black immigrants, including attacks on asylum, deep cuts to refugee admissions, escalating immigration raids, and an abrupt attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). 

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017 when the overall number of deportations decreased, the number of deportations of Black African immigrants increased.

In detention, Black immigrants are subject to poor conditions and treated poorly by those responsible for overseeing them. 

Prominent examples are from 2020, when more than 100 Cameroonians and Haitians were deported by ICE in Natchez, Mississippi after they went on hunger strike to protest human rights abuses like medical neglect, forced hysterectomies, and slavery-like conditions while detained. Similarly, in Pine Prairie, 42 Cameroonian detainees used the same hunger-strike tactic against what they described as a “gross human rights violation” by ICE’s New Orleans regional field office. Furthermore, a study from 2020 revealed that Black immigrants are also six times more likely to be sent to solitary confinement than other groups. 

Zeroing in on this disparity and highlighting the unfair treatment in detention is not intended to paint all ICE officers as villains. Some recognize this situation for what it is and go above and beyond to facilitate a more conducive environment or fair outcome for detainees. 

Black immigrants also confront unfair treatment, stereotypes, prejudice, cultural ignorance, and bias in immigration courts leading to unfavorable outcomes. From 2012 to 2017, Haitians had the second-highest denial rate at 86 percent for asylum (following Mexicans at 88 percent). In prior years, Jamaicans had the highest asylum denial rate at 92 percent. Also worth noting, according to RAICES, bonds paid to bail out Haitian immigrants averaged $16,700, some 54 percent higher than for other immigrants. 

Black immigrants find themselves at the mercy of immigration judges who are in most cases overworked, jaded, biased, and culturally ignorant. To dispose and reduce their caseload, some judges speed up the court proceeding, usually acting as judge and cross-examiner simultaneously. Also, without providing the immigrant with sufficient opportunity to explain or paint a vivid picture, they apply their black prejudice and faulty understanding based on limited information and stereotypes to arrive at a flawed conclusion. Unfortunately, due to the administrative nature of the immigration court, the fact that immigrants are not guaranteed a right to an attorney and that the rules of evidence do not necessarily apply fosters a system that is riddled with implicit bias, discrimination, and sometimes abuse of power. Predictively, these factors result in negative outcomes that significantly impact Black immigrants. 

Furthermore, Black immigrants struggle significantly with a lack of legal representation in immigration courts. Most immigration attorney job opportunities usually require a Spanish speaker. In turn, this creates representation for mostly Latinx or Spanish-speaking immigrants. Adversely, it limits representation for a significant amount of Black or African immigrants that do not speak English or Spanish. Frequently, these immigrants cannot afford representation from the big firms, and since most mid to small-size firms do not have the resources to allocate to language assistance, these Black immigrants are left to represent themselves pro se. This almost inevitably leads to a denial of the requested relief. 

The need for representation in society is just as paramount as the need in the immigration forums. In most immigration court proceedings, having a black attorney or black judge involved in the case means a lot to these Black immigrants because they believe that in some way, they will be given a fair chance. It can also be reasoned that having judges and lawyers that represent the diversity in society is a necessary component for justice to prevail. However, in the practice of immigration law, Black lawyers make up only 5.4 percent of all immigration lawyers, lower than their white, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts. Ergo, the language barrier and lack of diversity in the practice of law have also affected the representation and outcomes received by Black immigrants in America.

Black immigrants also do not fare any better with USCIS. Specifically, immigrants from African countries are expected to provide insurmountable evidence to prove their case. It appears that USCIS’ strategy is to send out a request for evidence (RFE) or notice of intent to deny (NOID) that implies from the ridiculousness of the questions that the subject immigrant must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a higher standard only applied in criminal cases. More often, the provision of copious documentation is still deemed to be insufficient and results in a denial. Clearly, the imposition of an impossible standard is tantamount to abuse of discretion and a violation of their established guidelines. 

The Black immigrant experience is the focus of this article but by no means is it intended to minimize the experiences of all other immigrants. But the fact remains that as our nation grapples with racial justice issues, the same concerns and pervasive institutionalized Black prejudice have become more prevalent in the immigration system. The prejudice and plight they experience continue to be fueled by stereotypes, bias, xenophobia, hatred, and cultural ignorance that reflect an undeniable truth that Black immigrants are undesirable in the United States. 

As a country, we can do better, and as human beings, we must do better.

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Henry Ibe is an associate attorney at Quan Law Group, PLLC, in Houston. He is a 2014 graduate of Wayne State University Law School.


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