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In the days it took to pull together this Q&A with two leaders in the immigrant rights movement—Haitian Bridge Alliance’s Guerline Jozef and the UndocuBlack Network’s Patrice Lawrence—the federal government deported more than 70 asylum-seekers to Haiti, including a two-month-old baby and 21 other children. Haiti is in the midst of political turmoil and advocates are calling these deportations “death flights.” Soon, hundreds more Black immigrants are expected to be deported, including 135 Haitian immigrants. Most of them are families.
While the coverage of these deportations hasn’t been extensive, what does exist largely frames the large-scale deportation of Black immigrants as an example of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operating as a “rogue agency” that is refusing to comply with the Biden administration’s orders, which instructed ICE to only remove suspected terrorists and people who have been convicted of felonies. During his first days in office, President Joe Biden also ordered a 100-day moratorium on some deportations, which was temporarily blocked by a judge in Texas. The judge’s order left in place new guidelines stipulating that only the most serious immigration cases should be subject to deportation.
But ICE isn’t a rogue agency. ICE is simply doing what ICE does, and according to Jozef, the federal immigration agency is simply operating as it was allowed and encouraged under the Trump administration. Anti-Blackness is baked into the immigration system and ICE has merely operationalized it. In fact, the federal agency has spent Black History Month deporting Black immigrants. Advocates were able to successfully get a deportation flight suspended Feb. 5 carrying African immigrants from Cameroon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; however, since Feb. 1, over 500 Haitians have been deported in an effort to deport 1,800 to Haiti by mid-February.
The co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance and the co-director of the UndocuBlack Network recently spoke to Prism about the crisis facing Black immigrants, the media’s role in the erasure of Black immigrant communities, and fair-weather allies. Our conversations have been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: We are currently seeing hundreds of Black immigrants—and Haitian people in particular—targeted for deportation. Much of the framing is that ICE is doing this in direct violation of President Biden’s orders, which seems to overwhelmingly absolve Biden and Alejandro Mayorkas, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, of responsibility. How are your organizations framing these deportations?
Guerline Jozef: I believe we are seeing a continuation of what the Trump administration created. The Trump administration dismantled the immigration system and emboldened racists and allowed anti-Black rhetoric. Haitian immigrants have long been a target, and now we are asking the Biden administration to do something about the abuse, anti-Blackness, and racism in the system because he has the power to begin dismantling it.
We are demanding that the Biden administration welcome asylum-seekers with dignity. We demand a pathway to permanent and legal residency for [Temporary Protected Status] holders, [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients, and other undocumented people. We are demanding they reinstate diversity visas. We are asking that the Biden administration take a deeper look at the root causes of migration for Black immigrants. There has been a five-year conflict in Cameroon. We have slavery in Mauritania. An earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions homeless. There have also been storms and continued political turmoil forcing people to leave. LGBTQ people are fleeing Jamaica. Black immigrants are among the most vulnerable and we always have a target on our back and it has been no different under Biden.
Patrice Lawrence: At the end of the day, Biden is responsible because Biden has the power to stop the deportations. He is one of the most powerful men in the world. I understand there are many nuances, but DHS is relatively new. ICE is relatively new. They built these agencies up quickly and they can tear them down quickly, but they’re not going to do that. The oppressor isn’t going to willingly tear down these systems; it’s the job of the oppressed to demand it. If the head of DHS had the political will to stop these deportations, he would do it. But he doesn’t and I don’t think he’s going to and that tells us a lot about his character and the character of Joe Biden. We need people who are willing to take political risks; we need people to determine that the deportation of Black immigrants is not an option. My demand for the Biden administration is to bring back every person who has been deported under his administration. I want a residency status created for Haitians so they can return. That is the reparations they are due. America is complicit in the conditions that people face in Haiti and if the United States is going to create refugees, it needs to create reprieve for them.
Vasquez: Right now, the U.S. is deporting Haitian families and five pregnant Haitian women will soon be deported. The Black Alliance for Justice Immigration tweeted the other day that the U.S. has a historical obligation to Haiti and that it must support undocumented Haitians. Help people understand this historical obligation.
Jozef: When we talk about the historical context for the relationship between Haiti and the United States, we must understand that Haiti is one of the very few countries that became soldiers and fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War. The blood of Haitians is in the very fabric of this country. Also, the United States as we know it today in size and context is a direct result of the Haitian revolution forcing France to give up the territory of Louisiana for fear that we were going to chase them wherever they were, so they were forced to enter an agreement to sell the territory to the United States for almost nothing. Haiti was the first country to ban slavery and without the Haitian revolution, the United States of America would not be what it is today.
You also need to understand that Haiti is seen as a thorn in the side of the United States. The United States did not recognize Haiti and it embargoed Haiti because of the fear that if they had a partnership with Haiti, [enslaved people] in the South would learn about what Haiti did and they would revolt and fight for their freedom. Haiti presented a threat to the Western World and especially to the United States. Haiti has been a partner to the United States, but the United States has not been a partner to Haiti and now it’s time for true partnership. The United States has silenced, minimized, and erased this history and the realities of Haitian people to allow for a system of racism and anti-Blackness to continue harming not just us, but people from around the world. Remember, the detention system in the United States was built in the 1980s to detain Haitian refugees. The bricks of the detention system are connected to Haiti and connected to slavery.
Vasquez: The Haitian Bridge Alliance and the UndocuBlack Network call these deportation flights to Haiti “death flights.” Tell me about the country conditions we are returning people to.
Jozef: Right now, Haiti is in the middle of an uprising because that diaspora is demanding the current president to leave power. For the United States to deport people to Haiti in the middle of an uprising is unconscionable. That’s first. Secondly, a lot of people left Haiti after surviving an earthquake that killed over 250,000 people and displaced millions. They are in search of safety. No one wants to leave home, but they have been forced to leave. Pregnant women, babies, small children are literally being sent back to nothing. There is no medical infrastructure for pregnant women being deported. There is nowhere for them to go. They are running for their lives and often trying to escape gender-based violence.
I want Americans to demand that we do better. We voted for Biden and Harris because they promised they would be better and that they were going to be different than Trump. This election was said to be a fight for America’s soul, but we continue the same cruel and inhumane practices that we saw under Trump. This is a humanitarian crisis and we are demanding fairness and justice.
Vasquez: We as the media are absolutely to blame for the erasure of Black immigrants. Just looking back at relatively recent stories that were explosive, there are few outlets that explicitly report that the injustices disproportionately affected Black immigrants or were piloted on Black immigrants. The first family separation at the border was between a Congolese asylum seeker and her daughter. The iterations of the Muslim ban targeted Black countries. Overwhelmingly, the families in detention facing deportation are Black asylum-seekers. The use of Title 42 to quickly expel immigrants during the pandemic has primarily affected Black immigrants. Can you talk to me about the harm that’s done when Black immigrants are erased from reporting?
Lawrence: The harm is extensive. I’m going to really generalize here, but policy changes come from the people who have power to sign documents and pass legislation—policymakers, lawmakers, members of Congress. Their frame of reference, the thing that pushes them and the thing they look to help them make choices, is not how many people showed up to their office or how big a rally was. How they decide what to move the needle on is based on what reporters publish. When we talk to a representative’s office about something affecting our people, one of the first things they ask us is if there are media articles about it. Has this been written about? Reporting is what they look to in order to give our lives and experiences legitimacy. They want published stats on who was deported, they want to see quotes and interviews.
We are grassroots. We don’t have the capacity for all that. What we do have is 1 a.m. panicked phone calls. We have WhatsApp flooded with messages from worried members. Our entire team at UndocuBlack is made up of Black immigrant women who have been or are currently undocumented. We have team meetings about how a recent executive order or ruling is affecting a staff member’s mother. We have community calls with people asking questions we don’t have answers for. We have inboxes full of emails from people who need help. We have people who were undocumented and afraid, but they found solace in us. That’s what we’ve got, but in this world that doesn’t get us very far because to lawmakers, what we say to them directly doesn’t prove our humanity until the media decides to uplift our stories. There is a political calculus that gets done; what will get me re-elected? What will make me look knowledgeable when I talk about something on the floor? It’s not until we riot and protest and put our bodies on the line and get media coverage that they hear about us and read about us. It’s very cruel that we have to put ourselves more at risk for people to take us seriously and report our stories, but then we’re at even greater risk. Stories get badly reported. People’s families get scared. ICE targets us.
Jozef: The erasure is something we’ve been screaming about for five years. It’s part of the reason [Haitian Bridge Alliance] exists—to make sure the stories of Black immigrants are being told. The reality is that if your stories aren’t being told by the media, then you don’t exist. If you do not exist, you cannot get assistance or relief. If you cannot get assistance or relief, you are being silenced. If you are being silenced, you can die and no one will care because they didn’t know you existed.
When immigration reporting is done—consciously or unconsciously, knowingly or not—the same system of racism and anti-Blackness continues. If you are not reporting the realities, you are engaging in this system. Haitian families have been separated at the border for five years. When asylum-seeking families from Haiti got to the border, the husband or partner was deported and the woman was left alone pregnant or with their children. That is family separation, too. We have had community members stuck at the border for years. These stories are almost nonexistent in the media. Earlier this week I spoke to a Haitian man stuck in Mexico. His wife and kids are in the U.S. without him because when he was in the U.S., he was detained and then deported. He got back to Haiti and things were so bad, he made the journey to the United States by foot for the second time and he got here and asked for asylum and the door was shut in his face again. He was detained, fingerprinted, and then sent to Mexico. I asked him why he made the second journey and he cried. He said he wanted to be with his kids; he’s never met his two-year-old because his wife gave birth when he was detained. We don’t hear the stories about children made fatherless and Haitian families never allowed to reunite again.
Vasquez: Do you have any faith that this will change, that we as journalists will step up and report on immigration more accurately and in a way that extensively covers Black immigrant communities?
Lawrence: I can’t count on it. It’s too big of a risk for us to take. We have determined that lawmakers and other people in power listen to the press, and a lot of media doesn’t cover us. We have a real love/hate relationship with the media because they twist our stories or take things out of context and push narratives that aren’t helpful, like this one time a reporter spoke to one of our people for 30 minutes and then the framing they used was one sentence he said about how “we are not criminals.” We are focused on trying to build our own platforms and doing narrative shift work on our terms. That’s how we fight back. We want to engage with the press who has credence, but we want our own credence too.
Vasquez: How are you thinking about the fight under the Biden administration? What are the challenges you anticipate over the next four years?
Jozef: Let me put it to you like this: We were gearing up for the next four years five years ago. The Haitian family separations needed to stop five years ago. The deportations needed to stop five years ago. We don’t have time to be patient because we have paid the price. Our thinking right now is that we have to focus on relief and systems of change. We cannot go back to how it was before. When people say, “Let’s go back to how it was,” they don’t understand that we as Black people don’t have anything to go back to. We have to fight to create something better. Some people have the luxury of this before time or a time that they thought was more normal, but we don’t have that reality. There was no “normal” for us. We have to fight for change, we have to create impact, and we have to change the system so that we leave the world a better place than we found it. Just like my forefathers and the people who came before me that led the fight in Haiti, our goal is freedom and to change the system at its core. We are willing to sit down and talk with whoever is interested in that, but at the same time we will hold them accountable.
Lawrence: The way that I will answer that is to say that I’m preparing for things to be framed as progress that actually divides communities and excludes most people. If there is some sort of reprieve or visa program, they won’t remove existing barriers; they will only create new obstacles that will further shrink the eligible population. A majority of our people are completely disregarded by the system in place and people don’t understand that most become undocumented by flying to the United States and overstaying their visa. There are almost no options for [them]. If you don’t overstay and try to adjust your status, it has to be through these patriarchal ideals; you can’t do it autonomously. It’s through marriage. What does this mean for LGBTQ folks when “family” gets watered down to mean nuclear, heterosexual, and patriarchal?
I’m curious to see what stories or narratives the media and allies latch onto under the Biden administration. It was interesting under Trump to see allies really dig into the work around Mauritania, especially in Ohio where most Mauritanians settled and there were deportations constantly. Slavery was still practiced in Mauritania into the 2000s and it remains unsafe for Black people to return there. Allies really latched onto that work in a way that surprised me, but it was probably white guilt [and] because they heard the word “slavery.” They saw a common enemy that they thought was behaving worse than the U.S. They saw a country that is so bad, it still practiced slavery. Meanwhile. The U.S. still practices slavery. There’s just this real need to set themselves apart from the problem and appear to be a champion.
Vasquez: I have to say, one of the things I’ve heard a lot of advocates talk about is whether allies will give a damn about immigrants under the Biden administration. That’s something I think a lot about as a journalist. I never saw the level of immigration reporting that I saw under Trump; I never saw white Americans mobilize around immigration like they did under Trump. I’m wondering where all of that care, concern, and work will go under Biden.
Jozef: What I will say is that for me, this is not “work.” This is my calling. I don’t have the luxury of just deciding to stop. I’m a Haitian immigrant. I went through the system. I know the pain and the difficulties. I have lived it and I have suffered through it and I know that when people say “get in line,” there is no line. I am here to try to change the system so that people have a pathway and if they choose to become a citizen, they can.
I was really just minding my own damn business when I received a call that there were Black people at the border and they seemed to be Haitian. I went to check out of curiosity. Now I’m in it. I don’t know what other people are going to do, but I’m not going anywhere.
Lawrence: People have already gone away and dropped off. People were not kidding when they said that if Hillary Clinton was elected, they would have been at brunch. Black people are shouting from the rooftops that deportations are happening and that Biden can stop them. Where is the moral outrage? What happened to the concern for the kids in cages? I’ve not heard a word about Biden’s plan for family detention. If Trump was reelected and he spent his first 100 days in office and the first weeks of Black History Month deporting Black people, hundreds would be in the streets, COVID or not. The reasoning seems to be that we can’t set our savior on fire in the name of an ally, with Biden being the savior. It comes back to this basic thing again: Allies needed to separate themselves from Trump because to them, he was in-your-face evil and they wanted to feel good about themselves by trying to remove themselves from him. Biden is too familiar. To attack Biden is to attack yourself.
I actually felt sad after the election. I tweeted something about how those who had become associates and friends of mine over the last four years would no longer be my friends and associates because we would differ; I would need support to fight deportations under Biden and that support would be gone. So let it be written, so let it be done. It happened that fast. It doesn’t mess with me that much. It is upsetting a little, but as Black people we are used to being let down and depending on each other. When I tweeted that, I was grieving for a loss I knew would come. I sometimes wonder if the way people were under Trump was a performance to prove they weren’t racist. The protests they went to, the Black Lives Matter signs in their yard, they checked a box and now they don’t have to do the hard work of unlearning anti-Blackness or how to center Black people or examine themselves and do the daily work of trying to change systems. If nothing else, we have people we can call in four years when Trump runs again or when there is another Republican who is just as bad or worse. We know white people better than they know themselves. We already know how the story unfolds because history repeats itself.