Former President Donald Trump signed the first and only legalization bill in almost two decades to pass through both chambers of the Congress. The bill benefited Black immigrants, specifically Liberian immigrants. This is the untold perspective about how an underfunded, marginalized group of immigrants at imminent risk of deportation won their own relief.
The lessons learned along the way can serve as a guidance for how people engage in immigration advocacy under Biden.
Since 2000, the number of Black immigrants living in America has almost doubled from 2.4 million to 4.6 million, and the number continues to grow. Black immigrants hailing from all corners of the world come to the U.S. and have for centuries. What has changed, however, is the bureaucracy, red tape and arbitrary rules that rob us of the autonomy to settle in the U.S. Further, Black immigrants remain invisible and forgotten even from the broader immigration narrative that they help shape. Paradoxically, as low-hanging fruit with a skin color that automatically criminalizes and others them, Black immigrants remain primary targets and victims of the detentions and deportations system.
Racism and xenophobia were marquee issues for the Trump administration, and yet for thousands of Liberians, Trump’s signature also granted them the opportunity to apply for green cards and a secure future in the country they call home.
For people like Louise Stevens of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and her daughters, this bill is life-changing: Stevens’ green card provides freedom to travel, to secure a permanent work authorization and the dignity afforded to those who can count their futures in years – not in weeks or months. Stevens has a freedom and safety not even afforded to immigrant youth, who have spent the last four years hanging on to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by a series of litigation-led threads, all of which threaten to be severed by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas. Hanen’s decision has left millions of children in fear and uncertainty.
In 2019, the UndocuBlack Network led the effort to secure permanent relief for Liberians who had long been given Deferred Enforced Departure(DED), a form of temporary status provided by the executive branch. Unsurprisingly, when the Trump administration came into power, it initially stripped Liberians of that protection and any court attempts to restore it subsequently failed. It took months of organizing, speaking out and lobbying to finally result in Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) tucking the Liberian Refugee Immigration and Fairness Act into the Defense Reauthorization bill, which Trump subsequently signed.
Last Tuesday, I stayed up most of the night watching senators vote down amendments to the Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. The package instructs lawmakers to develop a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. What it does not specify, however, is how many or which groups the legislation covers or excludes. The next few weeks are crucial to including all undocumented people in the bill, especially those who are from the Black diaspora.
This package isn’t the end but the start of a vast list of political issues involving immigration. At the same time the package was introduced, the Biden administration also provided the Senate Judiciary Committee the funding to expand police enforcement activity. As a country, the U.S. cannot ignore, nor deny, the police brutality and harassment endured by people of color, with an emphasis on Black people.
Those past legislative accomplishments and current concerns have taught me valuable lessons that others should heed if we, as immigrant communities, want to replicate this success on a larger scale during Biden’s administration.
Conventional wisdom about what is achievable is often wrong. If someone had told me in 2017 that Trump would sign a bill granting green cards to Black immigrants, I would have laughed. Yet, here we are, mounting a major effort to make sure thousands of Liberians are taking advantage of this historic opportunity to naturalize. For Black immigrants, punitive measures and immigration backlogs don’t stop with a change of administration at the White House. Since Biden has taken office, there have been more Haitians deported due to Title 42 than in all of 2020. There has been confusion and a lack of clarity from the partial opening of the border that has caused a plethora of Haitian communities stranded in Mexico. This is an unpopular truth, but Biden deports too.
We should hold Congress accountable
Congress’ job is to pass laws. U.S. immigration laws are no exception. For too long, executive actions have taken the pressure off elected officials on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and that hurts everyone. With Biden’s current reconciliation package on to the House of Representatives, legislators need to consider that expanding police presence and enforcement activity and providing permanent status to immigrants are not two directions that work in conjunction. Protection for Black immigrants needs to be clearly addressed, written and followed as legislators navigate a legal pathway to citizenship.
This can and should be done for non-citizens who are undocumented regardless of age, race or affiliation. There are creative ways to ensure everyone from Immigrant youth to TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holders to frontline workers to the elderly have the stability and certainty of permanent residency. Black immigrant communities – and the U.S. – need an immigration system that looks beyond two-year increments, and immigrant communities deserve the dignity that comes with being able to count on a secure future and protection in the homes and cities they’ve built.
Trust Black women
Black-led organizations like mine are underresourced, underrepresented, and marginalized. And yet, they overachieve when it comes to securing collective liberation for the nation. The marginalization in all its aspects needs to stop.
Members of both parties in the House of Representative moved quickly and decisively when they passed the Dream and Promise and Farm Workforce Modernization Acts. The Senate can do the same if immigrant communities are creative about tactics. We are on the cusp of achieving real, transformative change for millions of immigrants like me. Let’s not forget the valuable lessons learned from the painful four years under Trump. Instead, we must continue to put the pressure on our government to create lasting change for all immigrants.