Hawa Allan | Longreads | July 2017 | 3500 words (14 minutes)
Words are said to have settled meanings, yet their formal definitions are often eclipsed by the images they give rise to in our minds. An “immigrant,” for example, is defined as a person who moves to live in a foreign country. Yet in the United States this word has often come to symbolize persons of Mexican, or Central or South American descent. The term “white immigrant” has a dissonant ring; those who move to the U.S. from parts of Europe or Australia are often casually referred to as “expats,” connoting a leisurely freedom of movement not typically conferred to an immigrant. A “black immigrant” is deprived of easy free associations. Black immigrants are unmarked, indivisible from African Americans whose lineage extends to the country’s inception.
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has been working since 2006 to identify the distinct legal issues black immigrants face, and the burden of racial discrimination they share with African Americans in the United States. Last year, BAJI published a report with NYU Law School that provides a detailed statistical analysis of the country’s estimated 3.7 million black immigrants. This population is often caught at the intersection of racial profiling and the unforgiving immigration laws that target those with criminal records for removal. Although black immigrants make up 5 percent of the unauthorized population in the U.S., they make up 20 percent of the population facing deportation on criminal grounds. Black immigrants, according to the report, have suffered disproportionately under Clinton-era immigration legislation aimed at sorting “good” immigrants from “bad” immigrants associated with crime or terror.
I recently spoke with BAJI’s Deputy Director Carl Lipscombe about the state of black immigration in America. This is the first in a series for Longreads about the challenges faced by lawyers working during the Trump administration.
Hawa Allan: What is the mission of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration?
Carl Lipscombe: BAJI tackles issues affecting black immigrants using a few different approaches. One way is organizing. We work with members of our community on issues that are important to them and we empower them to take action on their own behalf. We also do advocacy, working in partnership with other organizations towards policy change on local, state and federal levels. We have staff in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, and we also have a policy manager based in Washington D.C. who educates elected officials about broad topics affecting black immigrants. And we have two attorneys on staff that I supervise and who provide direct legal services to members of our community.
HA: So there are three aspects to BAJI’s work — public policy advocacy, organizing, and direct legal services. Was this three-pronged mission present at BAJI’s inception or did it develop organically over time?
CL: We were started in 2006 by civil rights and racial justice leaders, veterans who saw immigration as a continuation of the racial justice struggle. They soon realized that the immigrants’ rights movement was definitely not black-oriented. There were rarely black people at the center of immigrants’ rights cases, which were very Latino-focused, so they added the aspect of engaging black immigrants with the struggle for immigrants’ rights.
HA: At least anecdotally, I’m aware of tensions between black immigrant communities African American communities, although persons outside both groups tend to lump them together on a purely visual basis.
CL: I think the issues are still the same. There is obviously a distinct impact of harsh immigration policies on black immigrants, but both groups face criminalization, economic inequality, lack of access to adequate health care, and educational inequities.
HA: I suppose I was thinking about how competition over already meager resources can tend to pit groups that should otherwise be aligned against each other. How black immigrants, being newcomers who are uninitiated in America’s racial issues, think they can somehow “rise above” discrimination.
CL: Yes, I think those are historic tensions. But from our perspective, a lot of these tensions are manufactured by elected leaders, and by corporations in order to pit black people against one another. I think these tensions are fueled by outsiders and from the media. In reality, black immigrants and African Americans are similarly situated in certain contexts. When a black person is walking down the street and a cop stops them, they’re not going to be asked “Are you an immigrant or are you African American?”
HA: Of course.
CL: Last fall, we released a report on the State of Black Immigrants. Even though black immigrants have high educational attainment rates on par with Asian immigrants, they still have the highest unemployment rates and the highest poverty rates among all immigrants. They are over represented in the deportation system, we believe, largely because of their race. Black immigrants represent only about five percent of immigrants in the country but over twenty percent of those in deportation facilities.
Apart from refugee communities, black immigrants mostly live interspersed with African Americans in cities and face the same issues when it comes to criminalization: over-policing and the ramifications of broken windows policing.
HA: When you’re organizing, do you find you’re trying to convince black immigrants and African Americans that they have more in common than they think?
CL: We’re getting people to realize that we have a shared struggle. We have this amazing program at our national conference held every couple of years called the African Diaspora Dialogues, which gets people in small groups — black immigrants and African Americans — to share their migration story and how they experience race in the U.S. So we do a certain amount of work to break down those barriers.
HA: In terms of police brutality, some of the major figures who have symbolized the gravity of this issue include black immigrants, like Amadou Diallo, who was from Guinea, and Abner Louima from Haiti. And there was a more recent case on the West Coast…
CL: Yes, a Ugandan immigrant, Alfred Olango outside of San Diego. One thing that I find striking is that over the last couple of years, there have actually been quite a few black immigrants who have been killed by police. But their cases haven’t gotten as much publicity. Alfred Olango’s sister called the police because—he wasn’t necessarily violent, she just called them to calm him down.
HA: He had a mental health issue.
CL: And he wasn’t threatening her. She didn’t feel as though she was physically in danger but thought maybe the police could help her. Alfred was killed within moments of the police arriving. He was a black refugee, he was a chef, he was from Uganda, and the spin, the immediate spin, was “Oh he had a mental illnesses.”
HA: Right, the media narrative…
CL: It was also reported that he had been arrested before for traffic violations. Because he has been arrested before it means the police should show up and kill him?
HA: When organizing around police brutality do you find that you have to provide a different level of awareness to black immigrants as opposed to African Americans?
CL: I think because of the amazing work of Black Lives Matter over the last few years and the attention that police abuse has gotten, people get it. And that’s across the board. All black people get it. Any time I’m in a taxi or I’m on one of those ride-hailing services and I talk to the drivers, who are often black immigrants, and I tell them what I do, they talk about police brutality. What I find interesting is that they always talk about immigration along with policing. So I think people get it.
HA: I was wondering whether black immigrants who are very recent residents of the United States don’t have the same understanding of how their presence is threatening to the police.
CL: America has a very unique brand of racism. I think that a lot of black immigrants are just not used to it in their home countries where are ethnic tensions, xenophobia, even racism to a certain degree — but racism in the U.S. is very different.
HA: I’m thinking about bodily movements, gesticulation. People especially from the African continent…many have rather large presences, right?
CL: Yes, our communities talk with our bodies. Our voices are loud sometimes and those types of things can seem threatening — black people who are animated.
HA: There is a certain, I believe, experiential education you get from being a black person growing up in the United States. You learn to move your body in a certain way, how to move through the world.
CL: Yes, to make yourself smaller.
HA: Make yourself smaller and make yourself safer. But as a newcomer to this American situation you don’t have that kind of education, and that can put you in danger.
CL: I was born here and I grew up in the Bronx. I was taught how to deal with the police by my family. I was told to always carry my ID to the point that I thought I had to carry ID by law. I was taught to always speak respectfully to the police so that nothing happened to me, so I didn’t get arrested or worse. A lot of immigrants aren’t taught this. They aren’t taught to cower to the police or to be afraid of the police.
HA: I was just thinking about Amadou Diallo reaching for his wallet…a simple movement like that obviously doesn’t justify the violence that followed. But I imagine him thinking that all he had to do was to prove who he was and everything would be fine.
HA: From the report on the State of Black Immigrants, I was surprised to learn that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service doesn’t track immigration data by race, only by country of origin.
CL: I was at a conference recently where the history of immigration was being discussed. There were a number of court cases defining whiteness, and it’s surprising, given the history of our immigration laws, that we don’t track this data by race. It actually makes research on black immigrants very difficult because we have to use a combination of USCIS data and census data.
HA: Which makes the category of “black immigrant,” as defined in the report, both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.
CL: Specific communities were particularly difficult to track. For example, it is very hard to get an accurate number of Afro-Latinos in the country because some Afro-Latinos don’t self-identify as black. Latinos generally don’t self-identify as black in U.S. Census surveys.
Even among those who might self-identify as black, many of their home countries are only recently starting to recognize that some of their residents are black. It was only a year or two ago that Mexico acknowledged that there were black Mexicans.
HA: It’s fascinating that a country that was organized around race, both in the context of slavery and immigration, wouldn’t be tracking this data.
CL: Well, if they did track this data by race, it would make it a lot easier for attorneys to sue for discrimination.
HA: So BAJI was founded in 2006, and I understand that particularly damaging immigration laws discussed in the report came into effect in 1996 — crystallizing the link between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. Would you mind discussing this legislation: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)?
CL: I think it’s important the two bills are taken together. The first one, IIRIRA, expanded the criminal grounds for deportation as well as mandatory detention. Originally, there were only less than a dozen offenses that could get one deported. And even in those cases, judges had discretion over whether or not to detain someone and to ultimately deport them.
After 1996 those grounds expanded to about two dozen. IIRIRA expanded the grounds for deportation and AEDPA was terrorism-related. It established a means of restitution for victims of “terrorist activity” and enabled the federal government to detain individuals believed to be involved in terrorist activities.
Up until the passing of these laws, the U.S. removed on average maybe a couple of thousand people a year. While Obama was in office, we removed on average 375,000 people a year. Obama removed more people in eight years than in the entire history of the U.S. going back to 1892.
HA: Obama used the rhetoric about wanting to keep “families” in the country and get “felons” out — the good immigrant versus bad immigrant.
CL: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the definition of “felon” under immigration law is expansive. A teenager who throws an orange at a teacher—if they are charged with assault — would be considered an aggravated felon.
HA: In your view, are these the laws that created this nexus of racial profiling and the over representation of black immigrants in deportation proceedings?
CL: Yes, they are. These laws were passed during the Clinton years, but the administrative infrastructure for their enforcement was really set up during the Bush years, after 9/11 when immigration was moved under the newly-established Department of Homeland Security.
HA: Immigration effectively became an issue of national security.
CL: Yes, and Obama further funded Bush’s administrative infrastructure.
HA: And now, of course, we have Trump.
CL: Yes — now we have Trump.
HA: His rhetoric might be bolder—
CL: But he’s using the same laws and infrastructure as Obama.
HA: After immigration was placed under this anti-terror rubric, we now have the so-called Muslim ban. With respect to the Supreme Court recently reinstating certain portions of the ban, does BAJI have any specific response?
CL: Yes—well, for a start, Trump wanted all citizens from those countries to be banned from entry, which he didn’t get and which is good. But I think the Supreme Court did create confusion by carving out an exception for individuals that have a “bona fide” relationship with a person or entity in the U.S. The definition of that term is very unclear. The administration last week issued guidance on what they considered a bona fide relationship to be. It’s limited to immediate family and fiancés and stepchildren, so grandparents will be unable to enter the U.S. As you know, a lot of this community, particularly the black community, don’t come from nuclear families. We come from cultures where the entire community is involved with child rearing and care-taking.
HA: There was a very interesting editorial in the Washington Post that used the recent Supreme Court decision as a basis for refuting the idea that lawyers alone could save us in the age of Trump.
CL: Oh yes, I saw that.
HA: When the travel ban was first instituted, there were a lot of lawyers who went to airports to represent affected persons. Then lower courts decided the travel ban was unconstitutional. There was this hope, especially with figures like Sally Yates, that maybe the law could curb the excesses of the Trump administration.
CL: I agree with that general sentiment — that the law is an important protection for immigrants and a strategic tool that can support those in crisis — but we definitely need more than the law. If we’re really going to change the system, we need to organize, we need to change the leadership, we need to change those who are creating the laws and those that are enforcing them in this harsh, egregious way.
HA: Two of the countries affected by the travel ban are in sub-Saharan Africa: Somalia and Sudan. When Trump was campaigning in Minneapolis, he called the Somalis who resettled there terrorists.
HA: Of course people have focused on Trump’s statement about Mexicans being rapists and the idea of criminalizing immigrants in general, but can you speak to his statements about not only Somalis but also Haitians with regard to TPS (Temporary Protected Status)?
CL: Historically, when we’ve talked about Latino immigration, the context has been the “valedictorian” and the “Dreamer,” the business owner and the immigrant worker—the person who is here to work. But the narrative about black immigrants has been similar black people in general: That Black immigrants are charity cases who are here to take advantage of whatever resources there are in the U.S.
HA: So when Donald Trump’s administration said they were going to review whether or not to extend temporary protected status for Haitians who fled here after the earthquake….
CL: Yes, one thing that they did, which was unprecedented, was Trump had his administration look into the criminal backgrounds of Haitians. That has never happened before.
HA: I wanted to ask you about your personal history. I see that you started off as a labor organizer and then you were a public defender, and then you moved onto doing communications for social justice organizations.
CL: I started off in labor organizing when I was in college. I was active at Brooklyn College with adjunct faculty that was organizing. I was in student government and they came to us for support. I started getting interested in the labor movement because I just saw the power of unions and that we could actually make changes in our workplace and shift power dynamics. After undergrad, I interned with an organization called Jobs With Justice, which is a coalition of unions, students, faith groups and community organizations.
What I liked at Jobs With Justice was that we worked at different intersections. It was broadly a worker’s rights and economic justice organization, but we worked on those issues as they impacted immigrants and black people and the environment and healthcare and so on. So I was exposed to these different issues. And I have always had an interest in fighting on behalf of black people and immigrants, that’s why I got into this work. When I got burnt out from organizing I decided to go to law school.
HA: Is that because you wanted to address these issues from a legal perspective?
CL: I think that legal advocacy and organizing compliment one another. When I was an organizer, we often had to work with lawyers on policy — experts and what not — and I found a lot of them just didn’t understand my community, and saw it as their jobs to tell us what we can’t do and what isn’t possible.
When I was an organizer, I felt as though the job of lawyers was to take our power away. They took power away from communities rather than adding to it. And I thought to myself that it would be great to have that skill set and to really be able to use it in a way that merged with organizing and complimented organizing. So I became a public defender after law school. And I’m from the Bronx, so I was fortunate enough to be able to work as a public defender in the Bronx.
I saw that there just weren’t attorneys who were experts in the issues affecting black immigrants. There weren’t many attorneys who were expert at litigating in immigration court, or representing immigrants with criminal backgrounds or with mental illness or histories of substance use.
When I was a public defender, I realized a lot of my clients were black immigrants and I didn’t know that there were legal organizations devoted to black immigrants. There were a lot of organizations focused on Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants but not black immigrants. I was the first person at BAJI with a legal background, so I was able to get our legal program off the ground.
HA: Progressive movements often have to be reactive because they respond to the immediate needs of people who have the least access to resources to defend themselves. Right-wing movements, to the extent that we can call them movements, tend to be more ideological: the purpose of taxes, or questions about “liberty.” They’re not immediately responding to the needs of particular groups of people.
Is there a sense that BAJI in particular, or progressive movements in general, are implementing a vision for moving society forward? Is this even possible when progressive movements are constantly on the defense?
CL: You’re right that progressives are responding to crises. We’re trying to protect the few decent laws that we have on the books, or at least prevent the worst from happening. But at the same time this work is tied to a broader vision of the world that we want see—a world where black people, immigrants, Muslims, woman, trans and queer communities are able to live with freedom and dignity.
I think that we need to keep our eye on the long-term goals. There are times when the people we work with are facing an emergency and we want be there for them, but we do it in the context of fighting for our dreams. Working with other organizations, and being a part of the Movement for Black Lives and other similar groups, I can say the same thing for them. We’re all working toward a broader vision.