By Anika Forrest and Haddy Gassama
On Aug. 26 we marked 60 years since crowds descended on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As we continue to reflect on the progress made in the decades since, the “freedom” part gives us pause.
In the days, months, and years leading up to that historical occasion, members of the Black diaspora faced innumerable, unforgettable racial horrors, despite some lawmakers’ best efforts to erase those harsh truths from history books and public conscience. Yes, the enslavement of Black Americans, Jim Crow, and lunch counter segregation have all ended. No, our children do not require National Guard escorts into segregated school buildings. But it’s trite to think evolving beyond these societal ills equates to freedom.
There is a shared and repeated experience of terror connecting the Black diaspora. Social justice leader, lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson has likened Black exiles during the Great Migration to refugees. Perhaps hyperbolic by international law standards, this comparison accurately describes intentional and pervasive anti-Black laws that drive migration and govern the United States’ harmful immigration deterrence policies.
A recent report by Human Rights First articulates the heightened risks to Black asylum-seekers: they are denied basic protections, including the right to asylum, and actively targeted with racist retribution for reasons that amount to little more than being Black. “Bring me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…,” reads “The New Colossus,” the infamous Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. We couldn’t be further from that stated value of freedom.
The Biden administration must realize that its dream of racial equity will remain deferred until it recognizes immigration as a Black issue.
Earlier this summer, the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to the administration, echoing the firm call from advocates to prioritize Black immigrants in its racial justice agenda. Despite repeated criticism of its predecessor’s inhumane immigration policies, as well as promises to undo those harms, the Biden administration’s platform to advance racial equity has largely overlooked the voices of the Black immigrant community.
The Biden administration has rightfully leaned into many politically charged issues facing the Black community—voting rights and police brutality among them. But when it comes to immigration, it is poised to seal a legacy of xenophobia and anti-Blackness.
Despite indicating disapproval of Title 42—the life-threatening Trump-era border policy that masqueraded as a public health precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic—President Biden extended its scope to Haitian nationals, expelling more than 25,000 Haitian asylum seekers and migrants amid a pandemic and homeland fragility.
The Human Rights First report underscores the continued disproportionate harm to Black immigrants caused by the administration’s post-Title 42 policies.
This spring, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security announced initiatives, including heightened deportation, to deter asylum seekers and migrants from pursuing humanitarian pathways. This accompanied the administration’s litigated asylum ban rule, successor to Title 42, requiring asylum seekers to first pursue protection in a travel-through country or face ineligibility for asylum by the U.S. government.
Persecution, such as race-based violence, can deter one from seeking asylum in a country where they may have journeyed. Family reunification—another hollow priority of the Biden administration—also influences decisions to seek asylum in the United States.
There is no “right way” to seek asylum. U.S. law requires at-risk populations to present themselves at the U.S. border to seek protection. Adding barriers to asylum not in our immigration laws penalizes and demonizes Black families and individuals seeking refuge.
The grossly complicated CBP One app has exacerbated inequities. Asylum seekers are now required to schedule appointments through the system, despite reports that it fails to recognize darker skin tones and excludes languages native to many BIPOC communities. The app did not initially include Haitian Creole, despite the frequency of entry attempts by Haitian migrants.
The Biden administration has no qualms about using the full scope of its authority regarding immigration. That same boldness must apply to just migration policies.
Examining the U.S. immigration system’s impact on Black immigrants and meaningfully addressing systemic, anti-Black racism in the United States is a start. Establishing a White House Taskforce on Black Migration and adequately fund this effort is equally necessary
The U.S. cannot continue to overlook, undercount, and/or willfully erase Black immigrants and their families from the general discourse on immigration policy. Black immigrants comprise approximately 9 percent of the entire foreign-born population in the United States, totaling nearly five million people. These numbers omit the thousands of people outside the United States seeking to enter through humanitarian pathways to reunite with families, for employment, or through the Diversity Visa program.
The Biden administration must escape the trap of reactionary politics and embrace a bold vision for racially equitable migration policies. Shelter, wraparound services, and work authorizations are the migration management mechanics it should prioritize alongside stable pathways for entry. Now is the time to create a humane, efficient migration infrastructure that values all human lives yearning to breathe free.