Only days away from the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, much of the discourse of his incoming administration has surrounded the building of a wall between the US and its longtime ally, Mexico.
Trump made undocumented immigration a cornerstone of his campaign, one that relied heavily on the belief that large numbers of people were crossing the US border from Mexico and Central America and were committing crimes and suppressing wages for the American worker.
What is ignored is that unauthorised immigration has steadily declined since reaching a peak in 2007. The US is risking ruining diplomatic relations with its neighbour and ally, Mexico, as well as spending billions in taxpayer money, for essentially a non-issue.
Still, Trump made the case that “no group has been more economically harmed by illegal immigration than African Americans”. He toured around the country with Jamiel Shaw, a California man who lost his young teenage son to violence perpetrated by an undocumented immigrant. It was a clear wedge issue for Trump as he entered into a contentious relationship with Spanish-language media over his incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants.
Non-Latinx black and Latinx (a gender-inclusive term referring to people of Latin American descent) people have at times had a tenuous relationship throughout the Americas. The Dominican Republic and Haiti have a long history of strife over citizenship, nationality, and jobs. There is a minority of African Americans who view Latinx immigrants as interlopers who benefit from a civil rights legacy stained with the blood of black freedom fighters.
Latinx people in turn carry anti-black sentiments with them and view blacks as lazy and prone to criminality. These cultural misunderstandings open the door for both groups to be blinded by racism, xenophobia, and ultra-nationalism by the powers that be in nations like the US. Black and brown interests are inextricably linked, even on the issue of immigration.
Though the vast majority of African American voters turned their backs on Trump, he still garnered a greater percentage of black votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Some would attribute this to his promises to bring jobs “back” to the country, which is closely tied to his hardline immigration policy.
However, a closer look at undocumented immigration from an international perspective would show that it is not simply a brown phenomenon. Black people have historically crossed socially constructed borders to improve their life prospects, and this continues today. The humane and fair treatment of immigrants should be at the forefront of both black (non-Latinx) and Latinx people’s agendas and should be a subject that unifies them.
Blacks in the US must understand that their ancestral brethren, members of the non-Latinx African diaspora, are greatly affected by US immigration policy.
While the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States have been the subjects of constant debate, often left out of the discourse are the 400,000 of them who are black (non-Latinx).
Further, the Underground Railroad’s purpose was to cross socially constructed borders in search of better lives for those who were persecuted.
The Mason-Dixon line was a border that separated slave states from free ones, but with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, some slaves had to travel further north and cross a national border into Canada. Slaves in Texas crossed the border into Mexico where they were free and protected from slave catchers. This history of cooperation between black and brown is often lost as the media and politicians propagate a narrative of competition over employment.
The face of contemporary undocumented immigration is quickly shifting. A number of Haitians travelled to Brazil after the 2010 earthquake, and were provided with humanitarian visas by the Brazilian government, which was in need of workers at the time.
As the Brazilian economy took a turn for the worst, the Haitian migrants embarked on a perilous journey north into Central America. They faced bandits, unscrupulous “coyotes”, and detention in unfamiliar countries. Some were stuck in Costa Rica, others in Mexico.
The ones who make it close to the US border have often been thoroughly exploited and drained of economic resources. Some of the people taking this route come from other nations in Africa, including Sudan, Burkina Faso, Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
In fact, many of the Haitians pretend to be Congolese because they are both francophone and they believe continental Africans receive better treatment and are more difficult to deport. The Obama administration changed its policy regarding Haitians, vowing to deport any of them without documents.
Immigrant detention in the United States is also a civil rights issue. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center states that the conditions in detention centres have resulted in deaths and detainees allege that there have been beatings. Immigrant detention fits with the framework of the larger prison industrial complex which preys upon disadvantaged Black and brown people.
Solutions to our immigration issues are multifaceted and multicultural. It is an international issue that must be solved through cooperation between nations not the building of walls.
The current myopic view of unauthorised immigration leads to unnecessary tension between black and brown people, which allows for them to be easily divided by their common political adversaries. Blacks in the US must understand that their ancestral brethren, members of the non-Latinx African diaspora, are greatly affected by US immigration policy.
Latinx people need to fully understand that their futures are tied to Africa and Haiti. Just as our cooperation led to freedom for many along the Mexican border, Black and brown organisations should work together to lobby for sensible answers to our immigration problems and reform the conditions of immigrant detention, which the American Civil Liberties Union has called “brutal and inhumane”.
Jason Nichols is a professor, columnist and current Editor-in-Chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer reviewed journal of Hip Hop Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.