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Why Experts Say the US Immigration System Dates Back to US Slavery

  • Experts say discrimination against Black immigrants has a long history.
  • Bipartisan policies result in disparate rates of detention and deportation for Black immigrants.
  • Black immigration groups are pushing for change and a space in the movement. 

The mass brutalization and verbal abuse seen against primarily Haitian migrants crossing the US border in recent weeks has placed them at the center of immigration reform conversations. 

But migration policy experts and advocates tell Insider, Black immigrants’ movement through the US southern border is a small fraction of the avenue they use to stay in the country. 

The Black immigrant population in the United States is roughly 4 million, with Jamaicans and Haitians being the most common nationality at 17{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} each. According to the Pew Research Center, 54{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of all foreign-born, Black people in the US hold citizenship. 

Insider spoke with attorneys and Black immigrant groups fighting back against what they say is a US immigration system that has always been rooted in anti-Blackness. 

Black immigrants migration to the US

Black immigrants began migrating to the US, particularly from the Caribbean, for labor jobs at the turn of the 20th century. Many more came after the Immigration Act of 1968, with an upward trend in African migrants arriving beginning in the early 90’s. 

According to Pew Research Center, 84{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of Black immigrants are living in the US legally. Of the 16{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} who aren’t, they make up just 7{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of the overall undocumented population. 

Despite this fact, 20{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of deported people are Black, according to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. 

The exclusionary foundation of immigration laws

The origins of US immigration law has been tied by academics to Fugitive Slave Laws that were enacted at a state level across the country. Leading up to the Civil War, experts say, there was an institutional effort to control the movement of former Black slaves. 

“From the beginning, race had everything to do with who belonged in the United States and was a significant driver of these concepts of citizenship and immigration,” Alina Das, author of No Justice In The Shadows: How America Criminalizes Immigrants, told New America last year.

“Even when it came to birthright citizenship, which was understood to be part of the foundations of the Constitution Black people were not considered to receive citizenship at birth,” New York University law professor added.

Das went on to explain that in many instances, the Fugitive Slave laws gave a framework to many of the first immigration laws in the US – including the 1875 Page Act, Chinese Exclusion Act and The Immigration Act of 1924. 

All three of these early immigration laws excluded people either on the bases of race, profession or nationality. 

Asian immigrants during that period also had to pay a fee and complete a literacy test, reminiscent of racist examinations used to bar African Americans from voting. 

Today’s outcomes are shaped by that foundation activists say

Haitian migrant holding hand of child wearing an American flag, stars-and-stripes, hat.

Haitian migrants are seen at the Terraza Fandango shelter. Almost all of the mostly Haitian migrants who had gathered on both sides of the US-Mexico border have left their makeshift camps, ending a standoff that had provoked a major border crisis for the Biden administration.

Pedro Pardo/ARP/Getty Images

Today, people from poorer countries have more requirements and fees than their wealthier counterparts and an overall harder time getting approved for US visas. 

State Department data uncovers a staunch difference in the amount of visas distributed between European and African nations.

Advocates also note there remain caps on green cards and certain visas based on pathway to the US and country of origin. A majority also require sponsorship by a relative or employer, which can take years. 

Yoliswa Cele, Director of Narrative and Media at UndocuBlack Network, says Black immigrants are most often hurt most by these additional requirements, discouraged from applying based on minute requirements like a previous arrest. 

UndocuBlack is a network of current and former undocumented Black immigrants that was created in 2016. They organize around the needs of Black immigrants.  

Cele says to understand the system of anti-Blackness in the immigration system one has to understand people would like to go through proper channels like applying for visas before arriving but they are denied or don’t qualify. 

“What we see happening at the border. In the visa processing from folks who are planning to move out and inside the borders here. The consistency of anti-Blackness.” Cele said. 

Cele has used the opportunity since the arrival of the predominantly Haitian group in Del Rio, Texas to raise awareness that Black immigrants do exist and that there needs to be change in the US immigration laws. 

Experts say discrimination against Black immigrants has a long history and is bipartisan

In Washington, regardless of party affiliation in the White House, these policies have resulted in higher detention and deportations for Black immigrants, including under former President Barack Obama – who himself is the son of an Kenyan immigrant. 

During his tenure, the Obama administration deported over 2.5 million people, one million more than his predecessor President George W. Bush.

Former President Donald Trump is perhaps most infamous for anti-Black immigrant sentiments. 

The former Commander in Chief once said in a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators that Haiti, along with African nations, are “shithole countries.” In that meeting, Trump also expressed his preference for immigrants from European countries.

Under his administration, The Department of Homeland Security established a modern version of the 1882 immigration rule, called, “the public charge rule.” 


But experts note there isn’t a clear definition as to what a “public charge” means. 

It does allow the US government to deny a green card application to anyone on the basis they are “‘likely’ at any time to become a public charge,” or liability to the federal government. 

Under Trump’s administration the law was interpreted broadly, eliminating applicants who are “likely” to be dependent on government benefits like WIC.

Cele says the policy worked like a points system, deducting points from an application based on how much income or use of government services. The more points received, the less likely an applicant would be to get the green card. 

“People paused their application process because they were like ‘woah’,” Cele said, explaining that “if you apply for a green card and you are denied, you’re put into deportation proceedings.” 

Black activists say the US immigration system is a ‘police to deportation pipeline’

According to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, 76{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of Black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, many simply from civil infractions like a minor traffic infraction. Less than half of all deportations are on criminal grounds. 

Nana Gyamfi, Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, describes carcerality of the system and deportations, ” as modern-day ships going in the opposite direction.” 

“They realize that you are not going to go quietly into that night,” Gyamfi said. “When we talk about deportation as a part of criminalization, that’s what we mean.” 

Black Immigration groups are pushing for space and change. 

As far as what organizations on the ground are doing about the disparate treatment, UndocuBlack and Black Alliance for Just Immigration have a number of Department of Homeland Security complaints pending. 

Specifically with the migrant crisis on the border, they are putting pressure on the Biden administration to halt the deportation of Haitians seeking refuge from a recent earthquake and presidential assassination. 

All of these moving aspects of the immigration system make it hard for Black immigrants to come to the US. 

They are also hoping that the situation in Del Rio, Texas will make society more critical about how Black immigrants are treated en route to the US. 

Even in the immigration movement, however, Cele says their voices are often not heard.  

“We’ve had to fight for space even in the immigrant movement because we’re seen as distracting from the whole issue when we talk about the Black specific experience and then the immigration experience,” Cele said. 

Advocates say what happened at the border is the symptom of the problem.

“The experience of Haitian immigrants is a symptom of a larger disease,” Cele said. “There are Cameroonians, there are Central Africans that were being whipped, it wasn’t just Haitians. So It would be a great error to narrow it down to one specific country when it is a wider Black experience. We need a humanity centered immigration system in this country, period.”