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Black immigrants in the U.S. face big challenges. Will African Americans rally to their side?

- September 18, 2017

President Trump’s announcement that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, pending further action from Congress, has once again pushed immigration into the political debate. That debate —whether it is about undocumented immigrants or about the 800,000 “dreamers” who have taken advantage of DACA — largely focuses on the lives and experiences of Latinos.

Far less discussed are the lives and attitudes of black immigrants.

How are black immigrants portrayed in the news media?

Today, nearly 3.7 million U.S. immigrants — 8.8 percent of the immigrant population — are black. They come from a diverse group of countries, primarily in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. For example, Jamaica, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic are among the top 25 countries of origin for DACA applications; together they comprise about 1.5 percent of applicants.

Often when black immigrants are highlighted in the media, they’re used to reinforce positive characterizations of “black ethnics.” For example, they note that a disproportionate number of black students at elite schools are from immigrant families. There also has been a rise in first- and second-generation black immigrants who embody exemplary citizenship through public service. Minnesota state Sen. lhan Omar is a popular example.

Do black immigrants encounter discrimination and racism?

At the same time, however, black immigrants face particular challenges and risks. For example, a report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and NYU School of Law researchers found that DACA applicants from predominantly black countries are less likely to be approved than applicants from other countries.

Moreover, black immigrants are more likely than other immigrants to be deported when they have a criminal conviction. Although black immigrants constitute only about 7.2 percent of foreign-born noncitizens in the United States, they make up more than 20 percent of noncitizens facing deportation on criminal grounds.

The lesson of these statistics is that black immigrants face problems rooted in structural racism that are similar to those faced by native-born blacks. The elevated status that comes with being a foreign-born black person is not enough to overcome the broader forces of discrimination.

What do African Americans with generations-deep U.S. roots think about immigration?

Despite these parallel experiences, however, predicting prospects for political coalition foreign-born and native-born blacks is actually quite complicated, as I show in my book “Black Mosaic: The Politics of Black Pan-Ethnic Diversity.”

African Americans — blacks with generations-long American ancestry — have historically been ambivalent about immigration. On the one hand, native-born blacks sometimes think they must compete with immigrants for scarce jobs and other resources. On the other hand, African Americans have typically been more welcoming of immigrants than are whites. This is because African Americans tend to be leery of supporting racist narratives or supporting policies that would negatively affect immigrants from other groups of color.

Thus, African Americans typically do not prioritize immigration — but neither are they especially likely to support policies that would restrict immigration or otherwise target immigrants.

How do black immigrants think about U.S. politics?

Black immigrants are somewhat different. I found that the most important concern of first- and second-generation black immigrants is immigration. Moreover, my work with Jurée Capers found that black immigrants’ attitudes toward immigration are more similar to those of other immigrantreplenished groups, including Latinos and Asian Americans, than to those of African Americans. This suggests an important cleavage among blacks living in the United States and demonstrates how different identities can become salient in different domains of politics.

What do the two groups have in common?

There also are important similarities among African Americans and black immigrants. Both groups are more likely to support policies that aim to close racial disparities, such as affirmative action, than are whites. In addition, new data from the Collaborative Multi-Racial Post-Election Survey suggest a degree of solidarity among blacks that extends to black immigrants. Tehama Lopez-Bunyasi and I have found that 90 percent of blacks believe that it is “very” or “somewhat” important for blacks to “address the challenges of Black undocumented immigrants.”

This solidarity is embodied in black social movements and organizations. Although people largely connect the black social movements to police brutality, organizations such as Black Lives Matter as well the lesser-known Movement for Black Lives focus on a wider set of problems faced by black Americans, including those who are undocumented.

In this sense, the common experiences of African Americans and black immigrants, including experiences with racism, help to create agreement on certain issues and support for organizations that seek to advance the interests of all black Americans. For this reason, we should expect blacks to stand alongside other groups as they resist the immigration policies of the Trump administration.

Candis Watts Smith is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter @ProfCandis.