The United States of America, from its emergence as a sovereign nation and the creation and ratification of the Constitution, has been deeply grounded in systemic prejudice on the basis of race, ethnicity, and nationality. United States immigration laws and policies provide numerous examples of this disaccord with the governmental rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and liberty. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, US immigration law and policies from the eighteenth through the twentieth century have formed the basis of racialized understandings of who is and who isn’t supposed to reside in the country and/or become an American citizen.
Immigration during the Johnson administration broke with previous policies, moving away from the unapologetically racist, eugenic rhetoric of past immigration law and policies such as the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Africa and barred immigration from Asia. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965 eliminated national origins quotas that used national origin and race as a basis for admissions (while maintaining per-country limits) and allowed employers to temporarily or permanently hire foreign workers. Contrary to Johnson’s belief that the act would not be revolutionary, the INA acted as the catalyst for widespread demographic change throughout the country.
Fast forward to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the Illegal Immigration and Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and we witness a reformatting of immigration law. These three acts form the basis of a shifting rhetoric that conflated improper entry with unauthorized presence while targeting and criminalizing immigrants of specific racial, ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds. While the IRCA offered legal status for several million unauthorized immigrants who entered the US before January 1, 1982, it also paved the way for increased resources for enhanced border security along the US/Mexico border and sanctioned employers found hiring undocumented workers. The IIRIRA and AEDPA took the criminalization of unauthorized presence further by expanding the grounds for arrest, detainment, and deportation while significantly increasing funding for border control (almost exclusively at the US/Mexico border).
Moreover, the range of criminal convictions that made immigrants deportable increased significantly, and it was retroactive. The bed quota, which required a certain amount of immigrants to be held in detention before being deported, was established. Section 287(g) of the IIRIRA also allowed for the deputization of local and state law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law — forming an alliance that continues to negatively impact immigrant communities. Late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century immigration law has converged with criminal law, better known as crimmigration, and is feeding immigrants (mostly from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America) into a mass deportation machine that is embedded within mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
Black immigrants sit at the crossroads of anti-Black racism and xenophobia, subjected to hyper-surveillance and hyper-policing by the state. An atmosphere of highly intensified criminalization contributes to increased incarceration, detention, and deportation. As noted in the Black Alliance for Just Immigration’s State of Black Immigrants Report, “more than one out of every five noncitizens facing deportation on criminal grounds before the Executive Office for Immigration Review is Black.” The report also notes that Black immigrants are more likely to be detained for a criminal conviction than the overall US immigrant population.
Black immigrants enter a society that has historically vilified and continues to criminalize Black people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and religions (regardless of citizenship status). The disproportionate representation of Blacks subject to regulation and marginalization within the immigration enforcement system mirrors that of the criminal enforcement system. Building on a legacy of criminalizing Black bodies, excluding them from the American body politic, and denying them basic socio-political rights and responsibilities, our nation is bearing witness to an unprecedented era of targeting of Black immigrants under the Trump administration.
Among the policies and proposed bills emerging from the current administration and Congress, a number of actions taken against the Black immigrant community operate as the continuation of decades of contemporary immigration policy. Current legislation intensifies hostility towards and systematically eradicates the presence of “the other” — those who are foreign and more specifically, Black immigrants who are literally at the crux of the multilayered xenophobia of the current administration. Legislation being proposed in Congress such as the RAISE Act and SAFE for America Act would terminate the Diversity Visa Program, which grants legal permanent residency to 55,000 people each year, nearly half of whom come from African nations. The TPS Reform Act would erode temporary protected status (TPS) — a designation that significantly benefits immigrants from Haiti and several African nations dealing with ongoing conflict, epidemics, and devastating natural disasters.
Under the current administration, TPS has been terminated for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone following an uncommon six-month (as opposed to the typical eighteen-month) extension in 2016. Haiti was also granted a disappointing six-month extension after months of advocacy and following the exposure of unprecedented internal inquiries into crimes committed by Haitian immigrants within the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Somali community also faces the intersection of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, as demonstrated in increased deportations following the designation of nearly 5,000 Somali nationals for deportation coupled with Executive Order 13,780 (better known as the Muslim Ban), which sought to halt the entry of Somali and Sudanese nationals, along with nationals from four other Muslim-majority nations.
Thus far, the current presidential administration is characterized by ongoing conflict between marginalized and minoritized people and the government in the fight for equity and justice — a fight familiar to Black people in this nation, citizen and non-citizen alike. Black people in America have always had complex migratory experiences and understandings of residency and citizenship, with constant conflict with the government to uphold the principles outlined in the Constitution.
As we move forward, we must ask why thousands of Black immigrants from Somalia, Haiti, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have been earmarked for detention and deportation without the slightest regard for their well-being. We must also ask why there is a lack of compassion, care, and concern for the families and communities they will be leaving behind and the precarious uncertainty of their futures if they are forced to return to their homelands. In discussing the implications of the contemporary legal and political landscape on Black immigrants, especially undocumented Black immigrants, it is important to be mindful of the complicated nature of Black residency and citizenship in the United States. Increasingly targeting and removing Black immigrants is merely an extension of this complex relationship. Racism and xenophobia, as embedded within immigration policies and practices, are as deeply embedded in the means by which the law “granted” freedom to and extended citizenship to Black people. The threat — and the reality — of removal for undocumented Black people is grounded in centuries of institutional and structural anti-Black racism that renders all Black bodies, regardless of documentation, expendable and disposable.