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Black Immigrants are Deported in Higher Numbers than Asian and Middle Eastern Immigrants: Reconsidering Immigrant Rights' Challenge to 'Racial Justice' Work

In the aftermath of 9-11, an agenda calling for immigrant rights organizing and racial justice work to come together has become popular in social justice circles. Calls for coalition between the two camps were promoted before 9-11, but began to gain more momentum (and funding) after 9-11. These gestures of "solidarity" were mostly heard from immigrant rights advocates, who used liberal political magazines, conferences, their newsletters, and other public forums to argue that racial justice politics could no longer ignore immigrants now that immigrants were becoming, according to some, the main victims of racial profiling and the prison system.

Some immigrant rights advocates pointed out that immigrant rights work needed to have an analysis of state violence and therefore make coalition with racial justice movements, which had already been focusing on policing and prisons. And some racial justice folks publicly spoke to the need for their camps to reach out to immigrants. Indeed, it was only these sound bites of racial justice folks publicly chastising themselves and their kin that seemed to get any press in liberal political publications.

Yet this distinction between racial justice and immigrant rights was grounded in assumptions of which immigrants were being targeted by the state. Racial justice has long been coded as Black, meaning that we assume racial justice is justice for Blacks only. Immigrant rights, therefore, is often juxtaposed in opposition to racial justice issues, or issues that are connected with Blacks. Immigrants are racialized as Brown (Mexican, Central American and South American) or as Asian or Middle Eastern (in most INS data, the two regions are actually considered under a broad "Asian" category that includes 39 nationalities). In other words, immigrant rights is seen as speaking to the needs of non-Black immigrant groups of color, whereas racial justice is viewed as taking care of the needs of Blacks only.

Not only does the common juxtaposition of immigrant rights versus racial justice promote the distorted yet highly popular image of Blacks as politically selfish, it is also a (false) distinction not grounded in the reality of who is racially profiled for deportation.
Looking at INS data of immigrant deportations from 1993-2002, we actually see several trends that indicate immigrant rights agendas are based in some misguided assumptions of which immigrants are being routinely targeted by the state.

First, despite publicized reports inferring otherwise, the total number of immigrant deportations or the forced removal of an immigrant to another country are actually down after 9-11. What has probably increased is immigrant detention, for which numbers are more difficult to get given the Department of Justice's unwillingness to release definitive figures. Second, after 9-11, there was not a stark increase among South Asians and Middle Easterners getting deported, or among those nationalities identified as "Muslim." Third, Black immigrants (Caribbean or African nationalities) and Brown immigrants (Mexican, Central American and South American nationalities) had significantly higher numbers of deportations compared to White (European nationalities) and Asian nationalities (which includes Middle Eastern nationalities) before and after 9-11.

To put it simply, Black immigrants have higher numbers of deportations than Asian, Middle Eastern or White immigrants. For example, in 2002, there were 8,921 total deportations of Black immigrants, whereas there were only 3,090 total deportations for Whites and 4,317 total deportations for Asians and Middle Easterners. Overall, this trend is consistent from 1993-2002.

While it is not surprising that Brown immigrants, especially those from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, are targeted by the state given the large amounts of money pumped into Border Patrol for staffing and surveillance the targeting of Black immigrants by the INS does not tend to receive as much attention among immigrant rights folks. Yet Black immigrants, particularly Dominicans, Jamaicans and Haitians, have relatively high rates of deportations. And the number of Black immigrant deportations does not include South Americans (such as Colombians, Brazilians and Guyanese, who, relative to other South Americans, have high deportation rates), many of whom may be Black. And Black immigrants tend to have higher numbers of deportations than Asians and Whites, despite the fact that the rate of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean tends to be slower than the rate of Asian and Brown immigration.

Given the limited attention given to Black immigrants in the immigrant rights discourse, there is of course little mention of the fact that between 1993 and 2002, Black immigrants tend to be deported more for criminal deportations than non-criminal deportations. Asians (including Middle Easterners and many "Muslim" nationalities), however, tended to be overwhelmingly subjected to non - criminal deportations rather than criminal deportations. Between 1993 and 2002, the proportion of criminal deportations out of all Asian deportations ranged between 24-34%, reaching the peak of 34% in 1999. Compare that to the proportion of criminal deportations out of all Black deportations. During 1993 and 2002, criminal deportations of Black immigrants ranged between 57-75%, reaching the peak of 75% in 1996. In short, criminal deportations are more common for Black immigrants whereas the reverse is true for Asian immigrants.

The distinction between criminal deportations and non-criminal deportations is important because it indicates how different immigrant groups are racialized as inherently "criminal," and therefore seem to experience more state surveillance as immigrants. Generally, criminal deportations mean that you were convicted of a crime, with the result that you are removed from the country after you serve your prison sentence. Any non-naturalized immigrant, regardless of status, can be forcibly removed from the US if they are convicted of an aggravated felony, which is any crime that carries a one-year or more sentence. Non-criminal deportations are usually deportations of immigrants who attempted to enter the US illegally or who overstayed their initial visa without adjusting their status.

As William Branigan and Gabriel Escobar report in a 1999 Washington Post article, a significant proportion of criminal deportations are due to drug-related convictions. Therefore, the US "war on drugs," which has translated into a war against Black communities, also affects Black immigrants as well. So too does racial profiling and heavy police presence in Black communities. Laws particularly drug statutes that target Black communities and anti-Black racism in the criminal injustice system, including the sentencing process, must be considered as issues that inform immigrant experiences as well.

In light of these trends, immigrant rights may need to reevaluate its lack of focus on Black immigrants. More to the point, immigrant rights activists may want to question the lack of attention given to anti-Black racism as a structure that shapes the immigrant experience. It is apparent that darker people are not only the target of domestic police measures, this targeting also serves to largely determine who will get deported and for what reasons. As the numbers show, Black people are targeted for deportation just as they are targeted for prisons.

Yet the focus on Middle Eastern and (South) Asian immigrants after 9- 11 reveals a tendency among the large majority of immigrant rights advocates to defend those "innocent" immigrants who have been "criminalized" instead of those immigrants who, because of racism, are automatically viewed as criminal and therefore experience more aggressive and routine forms of racial profiling. Hence the current focus on "innocent" South Asian, Middle Eastern and/or Muslim immigrants who are being "treated like criminals," or the tendency to defend immigrants on the basis that they work hard, contribute to the economy and are "law-abiding."

Overall, the racial trends of immigrant deportations raise some important questions for immigrant rights work to consider. First, we may ask why immigrant rights activists and our allies with the exception of those who work specifically with Black immigrants tend to render Black immigrants invisible in our current campaigns. Second, we may question why it is that immigrant rights activism operates with the apparently false dichotomy between immigrant rights and racial justice work. That is, we may consider why it is that we pose immigrant rights work as distinct from racial justice work, despite the revealing numbers that indicate Black bodies are targeted for not only domestic forms of policing, but for immigrant deportation as well.

Tamara Kil Ja Kim Nopper is a journalist, educator, writer, researcher, and activist currently based in Philadelphia. e-Mail: kiljakim2003@

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