Immigration Reform in the US: Taking racism out of the closet

Xenophobia and racism are alive and well when discussing immigration reform in the United States, writes Comrie.

Young Immigrants Apply For Obama Administration''s Temporary Deportation Reprieve
"In the past four years, under the administration of President Barack Obama, the US has broken every record for deportations with an unprecedented 409,849 deportations occurring in 2012 alone," writes Comrie [Getty Images]

It is with no surprise that immigration reform and it’s meaning has polarised communities in the United States, confounded policy makers and become a political football for the left and right.

One of the main reasons why this issue has become so contentious is the racial and ethnic make-up of recent entrants to the country, both documented and undocumented. While race fuels the nativists concerns with border security and the undocumented overwhelming governmental services, the racial elements of those concerns are not being acknowledged. Rather, they are masked in polite, neutral terms around issues of concern for the law and the expense of governmental services and everyone goes along with the charade. Yet, for undocumented people, and even those with legal residency who are from countries from the global south, the reality of race is all too real in their daily lives and the way in which public policy is enforced. This is even truer for populations not normally thought of as being part of the immigration debate in the US-migrants who are phenotypically seen as “Black” within the US. 

There are over 150 million people that are living either permanently or temporarily outside their countries of origin. The United States, according to the United States Census Bureau, has nearly 40 million foreign-born residents, which is roughly 13 percent of the total US population. Many immigrants to the US are migrant workers who are engaged or have been engaged in a paid activity in the US and members of their families. Forced to migrate for several reasons, including because of the devastation of neoliberal policies, thousands end up in detention facilities, some after having lived, worked and formed families in the country for several years. Despite being greatly outnumbered by non-African descendent immigrants, according to Centre for American Progress, Black immigrants are estimated to represent over 3 million of the estimated 40 million immigrants currently estimated to be in the United States.  

Despite being outnumbered by non-black Latinos and Asian immigrants, in urban cities such as New York, Boston and Miami more than a quarter of their black population is foreign born, and they with their African American counterparts are the largest groups represented in the criminal justice system.

Xenophobia and Immigration

Very similar to their non-black counterparts, migration for black immigrants is usually a combination of issues, mostly due to economic and political forces in their countries of origin, many come seeking educational and employment opportunities, as well as there are some cases of individuals looking for safety. There is a large majority of black immigrants that come for family reunification and are granted residency based on the legalities of family reunification.

As an example we have, the situation facing Calvin James, which is not atypical. An excerpt from the Colorlines website illustrates his situation:

“Calvin James immigrated to Queens, New York, when he was 12 to follow his mother. At 17, James dropped out of high school. To make some money, James and his older brother tried fixing electronics, but that did not bring in enough cash. The brothers began selling marijuana in city parks. In 1992, James was arrested and spent 18 months in jail for possession and dealing of marijuana. James was released from prison in 1994 and brought to an immigration centre in Manhattan, where he was told that as an immigrant who had committed a crime, he was at risk of deportation. Several years ago order of deportation was issued for James without his being present and without legal counsel.

James story gets little or no coverage as well as stories like his in mainstream, independent or even in the alternative press. The fact is that in terms of a domestic discussion about immigration, black immigrants issues are also for the most part invisible in the so-called immigrant rights movement, despite the labelling of many as racial justice organisations.  Some could say that black immigrant issues go into the fold of a raceless immigrant rights movement since, it could also be said that race and racism are embedded into the fabric of immigration, or we could assume that this is another example of how African descendants continue to be invisible from issues that are at a national scope level, and that their specific and particular realities need to be sacrificed for the benefit of the ‘majority’.

Race as National Policy for Immigration Enforcement

From policies that target migrants based on who looks or seems to belong in society and who does not, despite the citizenship or residency status of the individual or groups, to the banning of ethnic studies at high schools and university centres by state legislations, are all manifestations of how immigration has become a discussion of who belongs vs. who does not belong in US society and, indeed, what constitutes a US national identity.  

It is this debate that has created an environment in which repression based on race is tolerated and even supported by government programs. The acceptance of racial profiling is but one graphic example. 

Racial profiling happens in the United States when there is a systemic targeting of people around searches, stops or investigation on the basis of that person’s race, national origin or ethnicity. Some examples of documented racial profiling include the commonly used term ‘driving while black’, which is when police can use race to determine which drivers to stop for presumed traffic violations. But now with the focus on Latino immigration, driving “while brown” has become another marker for racial profiling. 

Over the past decade, immigration enforcement measures by national, state and local governments have included blatant use of racial profiling with the result being an dramatic increase in criminal prosecutions, raids at worksites, checkpoints at roadblocks and military like incursions into communities identified as “immigrant. In the past four years, under the administration of President Barack Obama, the US has broken every record for deportations with an unprecedented 409,849 deportations occurring in 2012 alone. The Obama administration has also expanded partnerships that enable and condone the stopping of individuals by local police to check for immigration status and identification, such as Secure Communities, 287(g), and the Criminal Alien Program. And these programs are not cheap, the federal government spent close to $18 billion dollars on immigration enforcement last year alone. There are also programs such as Operation Streamline that target women, men and children and allow them to be detained in private detention centres for a year or more. 

Xenophobia and racism are alive and well through the immigration system, and it does affect both blacks and non blacks, yet the impact that invisibility that black immigrants because of their race, puts them in a doubly precarious situation.  While we very commonly see and hear about immigration being a very ‘Latino’ issue around immigration, including detention and deportation, we rarely see and hear the realities that black immigrants and their families face in a criminal justice system in where blacks historically have been and continue being disproportionately represented.

While xenophobia and racism are driving factors in the debates around immigration reform in the US, the racist implications of this conversation and the policies that emerge from it continue to be unacknowledged. What this means for both black immigrants who remain invisible in this debate and for other non-black immigrants, is that an immigration reform that does not take into account how race continues to limit and define the realities of non-whites, will be an immigration reform package that only solidifies the structural, social and economic domination of black and Latinos. 

Janvieve Williams Comrie, is the current Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center. Her previous professional experience include the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Central America Regional Office and the US Human Rights Network in the United States, where she worked directly on race and racial discrimination and human rights. 

Follow her on Twitter: @jwpanama