The experience of black immigrants foretells what’s to come for Central Americans

The experience of black immigrants foretells what’s to come for Central Americans
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Last week, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRoy Moore sues Alabama over COVID-19 restrictions GOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs MORE proclaimed that asylum seekers would be separated from their children and the Justice Department will prosecute all illegal border crossers. For those of us who closely monitor this administration’s treatment of immigrants, his policy shift isn’t at all surprising.

Since last month, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE has railed against a caravan of Central American asylum seekers headed toward the United States, calling in the National Guard and renewing calls for a border wall. The first group of Central American immigrants and families arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last month. But unbeknownst to many, like the caravan riders, thousands of black migrants also have sought entry to the United States, via San Diego, over the past 18 months. Their experiences may foretell what’s to come for these Central American arrivals.

In a recent report, the Black Alliance for Just Immigrant (BAJI) details the immense challenges facing black immigrants who, like their Central American counterparts, seek asylum here. From February 2016 to early 2017, an estimated 11,000 black migrants, most of whom escaped the catastrophic destruction of Hurricane Matthew in 2015 or the 2010 Haiti earthquake, made a harrowing journey on foot from Brazil, through Colombia and Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. Since their arrival, nearly 4,000 of them have been detained or deported; another 3,000 were denied entry outright. The rest remain in limbo in the United States.


The conditions these mostly Haitian and African immigrants sought to escape are heartbreaking and agitating. Some endured robbery, rape and illness, or threats of violence because of their gender or sexuality. Others escaped state-sanctioned violence after observing that fellow activists disappeared without explanation.

Unfortunately, their difficulties continued upon arrival in the United States. They commonly reported egregious treatment, deplorable conditions, misinformation and lack of access to vital medications by immigration officers at the border and in Otay Mesa Detention Facility. Many of the French- and Haitian Creole-speaking detainees at Otay Mesa knew nothing about the details of their cases, since documents were (and remain) available only in English and Spanish.

Perhaps even worse, many of the cases of the black immigrants that we met at the border were rejected by legal service providers, who lacked capacity, cultural competence or sheer willingness to work with them. For these black immigrants and their supporters, one thing is clear — the state of black lives at the border is beginning to resemble a humanitarian crisis.

It is imperative that we mobilize resources and capacity to support all immigrants in crisis.  

We need asylum-seekers to be met with support that literally speaks their language. We need resources that help these families — who have beaten incredible odds to ask for help and mercy at our border — to stay together and work through the traumatic conditions they’ve left behind. And we need to support the infrastructure of the few culturally competent grassroots organizations supporting black immigrants at the border.  

 The journey toward refuge is just beginning for the Central American caravan riders. As black immigrants who recently arrived at the border can attest, they will now confront a U.S. immigration system that may prove more formidable than the arduous road that they have traveled. Hopefully, immigration advocates can help smooth the path for both groups.

Carl Lipscombe is deputy director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), a national nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Afro-Latino countries. A policy advocate, organizer and attorney, he previously was a public defender with Bronx Defenders, a public defense nonprofit, and has litigated on behalf of indigent criminal defendants and undocumented immigrants. Follow him on Twitter @carlken.