Black Immigration Primer: Part II

Part Two: Why should Black people care about immigration issues?

By: Breanne Palmer

Welcome to Part Two of the Black Immigration Primer! If you didn’t catch Part One, I suggest giving it a quick skim to get some basic facts and statistics about Black immigration in the U.S. today. In Part Two, we’re delving into three answers to one question: why should Black people care about immigration issues?


Immigration, when discussed on the national stage, has never been framed as a “Black issue.” It is also never framed as an issue that should concern Black Americans whatsoever. National discussions regarding immigration policies have rarely, if ever, included the Black immigrant experience. In fact, many Black immigration activists have pointed out the damaging ways immigration policies have excluded or criminalized Black immigrants specifically, as Latinx migrant rights groups fight to gain ground with legislators (I’ll give you some examples later in this piece).

But why should Black people care about immigration issues?

  1. Because Black people are not a monolith, and the Black experience in America includes that of Black immigrants.

As I discussed in Part One of this Black Immigration Primer, Black immigrants make up an ever-increasing portion of the population of Black people in America. As Black immigrants, many of us come from families and childhoods that did not include an intimate knowledge of the legacy of enslavement, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and other national phenomena in America. For many of us, our parents have only “outsider” knowledge of these struggles. Instead, we have our own experiences of lingering European colonialism, remnants of enslavement, colorism, class hierarchy, and other unique issues that plague the African continent and the entire Caribbean. Our experiences may be similar on a larger scale (the exploitation of Black bodies by White powers), but the daily lived experiences of Black Americans and Black immigrants, based on our upbringing and socialization, can be so different that we completely misunderstand one another. Many people far more intelligent than I have written about the tensions between Black immigrants and Black Americans. A quick Google search will give you an overview of the complaints on both sides (seriously, do your Googles here).


First- and second-generation Black immigrants, like me, who were born in the U.S. but were raised in distinctly immigrant households, received a unique upbringing: at home, I had a Jamaican experience; out in the world, I had a generally Black American experience (I lived in South Florida, however, so even that was colored by Black and Latinx Caribbean experiences). I did not fully experience a Black American community until I attended college at the University of Florida. And as I grew in my consciousness, I was able to take my knowledge home to my family and dispel myths they held about Black Americans. My parents knew they were Black (not just Jamaican) when they emigrated from Jamaica. My mother told me about instances of racism and prejudice she faced that suddenly abated when the perpetrators realized she was “something other than Black American.” She rejected that differentiation. But not every Black immigrant is encouraged to do that. Many of us come from households that encourage us never to be mistaken for Black Americans. And that’s damaging as all hell. Luckily for us, these conversations--about dispelling anti-Blackness even in our own Black Caribbean and Black African communities--are happening, thanks to the hard work of people in my generation who want to build Black solidarity beyond borders.


I am Black. I stand in solidarity with all Black people everywhere, and I cherish my experiences as a Black person born in America, and my constant education about the Black American experience.


I am also Jamaican. I cherish my Jamaican heritage and the culture that my parents and family have blessed me with. I cherish my constant education about the Jamaican and Caribbean experience.

We do not have to choose between the Black American experience and the Black immigrant experience. We must choose both, if we are to get free. All Black lives must matter to all Black people.

2.  Because Black immigrants are subject to the same racialized criminal justice system Black Americans are--but Black immigrants face an additional consequence: removal from the U.S. It’s called “crimmigration.

Black Americans are intimately aware of the dangers American policing poses to Black American communities. Police brutality, false arrests, extralegal murders, destruction of property--it’s all familiar within the Black American experience. Modern policing evolved out of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which created local Slave Patrols and Night Watches (deputizing regular people to violently capture and return slaves to their owners). These patrols and watches became some of America’s very first organized police departments. It’s safe to say we see the origins of these departments still at play today, as policing is still racialized.

It should come as no surprise that Black immigrants experience racialized policing, too. To the police, Black is Black. Thus, when the police stop a Black person, it matters not which flag that person flies at home. What matters is that there is a Black body in custody. Interactions with police, for Black Americans, can be deadly or result in imprisonment (and the stripping of rights). Interactions with police, for Black immigrants, can also be deadly (remember Amadou Diallo?), or result in imprisonment. But that is where the similarities end. For Black immigrants, interactions with police, taken to their logical end, can result in removal from the U.S. That’s extreme.

If a Black immigrant (without legal status) is arrested and taken into custody by the police, a number of things can happen.

ICE Detainer

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), the largest investigative agency under the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), uses a tool called a “detainer.” An ICE detainer is a written request that a local jail or other law enforcement agency detain an individual for an additional 48 hours after his or her release date in order to provide ICE agents extra time to decide whether to take the individual into federal custody for removal purposes. What does this mean for Black immigrants?

1.    ICE can identify potentially-removable immigrants in local jails or prisons nationwide.

2.    An ICE detainer asks local police to keep a Black immigrant in custody for an additional 48 hours after the local police have decided to release that Black immigrant.

3.    An ICE detainer is a request, not a command. Police departments do not have to keep holding Black immigrants that are subject to ICE detainers; many of them do, however. An ICE detainer buys ICE more time to investigate a Black immigrant’s legal status, if they have any (ICE asks, can and should this Black immigrant be removed from the U.S.?).

4.    If an ICE detainer is acknowledged by the local police, and ICE determines that the Black immigrant is subject to removal from the U.S., the Black immigrant may be transferred from local police custody to ICE custody (also known as being detained in immigration detention--which are often private prisons for profit!).

5.    This could begin the removal process for a Black immigrant, which is expensive, traumatic, and disruptive.

As you can see, for Black immigrants, coming into contact with the criminal justice system can lead directly to coming into contact with the immigration system. A simple arrest (for a traffic incident, perhaps) can result in ICE being notified about a Black immigrant’s status in local police custody.

The 287(g) Program

You may be asking why (and how) local police would work with ICE--their jurisdictions are totally different, right? Very simply, ICE is tasked with enforcing immigration laws nationwide. Local police are tasked with enforcing local and state (and sometimes federal) laws.

In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act added Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act (the source of our immigration laws). Section 287(g) allows ICE to enter into agreements with local police, deputizing them to enforce immigration laws while supervised by ICE officers. Thirty-seven police departments and sheriff's offices currently participate in the 287(g) program nationwide.

Why is this important? Because it increases the likelihood that interacting with local police will result in immigration consequences. It gives local police ICE-like authority to investigate a Black immigrant’s legal status (access to immigration databases, for example). It allows local police to interrogate and arrest people suspected of violating immigration laws (racial profiling, anyone?). Section 287(g) is terrifying, and even more so for Black immigrants.[2] The Obama Administration scaled back 287(g) in 2012, but 45 (The 45th President of the U.S. Yeah, him) included plans to revitalize 287(g) in one of his January Executive Orders.


To recap: a Black immigrant may be racially profiled due to their Blackness. If interacting with a 287(g) police department, that Black immigrant’s legal status may be investigated immediately. Whatever results come up could lead to that Black immigrant being placed in removal proceedings. Easy as 1, 2, 3.   

Secure Communities

Secure Communities is a DHS program designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are removable under immigration law. Local jails submit arrestees’ fingerprints not only to criminal databases, but to immigration databases as well, allowing ICE access to information on individuals held in jails. Unlike other ICE-local partnerships like 287(g), Secure Communities gives ICE a technological, not physical, presence in prisons and jails. Why is Secure Communities terrifying? Because it, like 287(g) and ICE detainers, makes identifying undocumented people who interact with the police (no matter the criminal offense) easy.

Secure Communities was replaced by a Priority Enforcement Program under the Obama Administration, but 45 has again promised to revitalize Secure Communities in a January Executive Order.

These are just three examples of the way the criminal justice and immigration (“crimmigration” system work together to target Black immigrants.

So what is the result of the crimmigration system?

A few distressing (but unsurprising) facts from BAJI’s State of Black Immigrants Report:

●     Almost 1 in 3 immigrants facing removal in federal immigration court is Black.

●     More than 20% of immigrants who face removal for criminal violations are Black.

●     In 2015, nearly 1 in 3 Black immigrants facing removal had criminal violations.

These numbers are not reflective of inherent Black criminality. They are reflective of how often Black people, including Black immigrants, come into contact with the criminal justice system, whether justified or not. Racialized policing and the criminal justice system have always harmed Black Americans. It turns out that racialized policing and the criminal justice system, when working hand-in-hand with the immigration system, harms Black immigrants, too. Black Americans and Black immigrants are fighting intersecting aspects of the same evil: pervasive anti-Blackness and racism in the U.S.

3. Because including Black immigrants in the narrative about immigrant rights will benefit all immigrants: because “when Black people get free, everybody gets free.”

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has a wealth of information on its website. I included some links below for further reading and research. One of BAJI’s best tools is its Transformational Solidarity Webinar, which encourages Black Americans, non-Black migrant rights organizations, and Black immigrants to participate in transformational solidarity to expand our ideas about liberation. It chronicles some of the ways previous migrant rights “wins” have actually been major losses for Black immigrants. For example:

●     The 2013 Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, among other reforms, proposed getting rid of one immigration tool: the diversity visa lottery. The diversity visa lottery is one of the most popular ways Black immigrants entered the U.S. with legal status.

●     California’s AB-60 Driver’s License for Undocumented Residents allows undocumented people from certain countries to acquire a driver’s license. This eases the burden of transportation and prevents undocumented people from being arrested for driving without a license (a common offense).  However, the AB-60 list of eligible countries excludes African and Caribbean nations (the nations on the list are located exclusively in Latin America and South America). This means that undocumented Black immigrants in California cannot benefit from the AB-60 license, limiting their mobility and putting them at risk of arrest if they drive (a must, in a state like California).

BAJI explains that these reforms, which are positive for other immigrant communities, directly harm Black immigrant communities. And why does this happen? Because Black immigrants are not included in major discussions, policy proposals, and national organizing for migrant rights. Including Black immigrants and actively fighting anti-Blackness in immigrant communities (it’s real) can halt these narrow-minded reforms in their tracks and replace them with better solutions.

Wow. That was a lot, right?

Take a deep breath. Black immigration and its issues are deep, complex, and overwhelming. Now that we have some answers to our initial question (“Why should Black people care about immigration?”), I have some gentle suggestions (homework) for y’all. They’re all from BAJI, and they are the best starting point for Black immigration knowledge building. I hope you’ll join me for Part Three of the Black Immigration Primer, coming soon!

Next Steps:

Watch BAJI’s Transformational Solidarity Webinar (58 min.) below.


The webinar aims to:

○      Provide history and context of the Black Lives Matter movement

○      Share how migrant rights organizations and activists can and must show support and join in solidarity with the movement

○      Provide education about Black experience and racial justice in the 21st century

○      Framing about immigrant rights and racial justice priorities including criminalization and the Black immigrant experience

○      Combatting anti-Black racism in non-Black people of color spaces

Watch BAJI’s video about the criminalization of Black life in the U.S., including Black Americans and Black immigrants (4 min.). The webinar discusses how overpolicing (including ICE raids) harms our shared communities.

Read BAJI’s flyer about the Secure Communities Program (now back in action, thanks to 45!) and how it encourages racial profiling (discrimination that both Black Americans and Black immigrants are familiar with) and increases police presence in our neighborhoods.

This is [ACTUALLY] Us!

Have 1,865 Seats, Uncle Ben