Should Black Americans Champion Immigration? | Opinion

A massive humanitarian crisis brewing on our southern border has for now been averted. The 15,000 Haitian immigrants who had amassed there in recent weeks have been moved; some were deported while others were allowed into the U.S. to await asylum hearings. But before the issue was resolved, disgraceful images emerged of border patrol agents on horseback lashing at barefooted Black bodies.

For many, the images brought to mind convict leasing (chain gangs) at Mississippi's Parchman Farm or the cotton fields of Louisiana's Angola Prison Plantation, where mounted police lord over imprisoned Black people. They were justly denounced, and the Biden Administration has promised a full accounting. But in calling up the worst associations in American history for Black Americans, the awful images raised uncomfortable questions, too, specifically, to what extent Black Americans should be champions for migration, given the costs to our community.

On the one hand, seeing images of Black bodies being brutally corralled by law enforcement appears to be a cause related to one element of our own. On the other hand, it's undeniable that at times, U.S. immigration policy has historically come at our expense, even when those immigrants have been other Black people.

From engineering to medicine to nursing to manual labor, the United States has a history of cultivating and seeking talent from foreign countries—while surveilling, incarcerating, and traumatizing its own Black population. Over and over, legal and illegal immigration has been tied to a decrease in the wages and employment rate of Black Americans.

This is not to suggest that we ignore our responsibilities to immigrants or to the desperate and destitute of countries around the world, especially those whom U.S. policy has negatively impacted. But it is to point out the fact that in a labor market that is increasingly inhospitable to the lower classes and has never been made to work for Black Americans, our country sometimes seems to prefer to offer its bounty to others.

This is especially true when it comes to the descendants of slaves in the U.S. As a seventh generation American and native Mississippian, I am deeply proud of my country and my ancestors who endured enslavement, navigated the dangers of Jim Crow, and served in our military. I also feel a sense of kinship, however elusive and intangible, with people of Aboriginal African descent.

Haitian migrants in Mexico
Haitian migrants queue to get food at a shelter in Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila state, Mexico, on September 21, 2021. - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador urged the United States on Wednesday to act quickly to tackle the causes of the migrant crisis affecting the two neighboring countries. "Enough talking, it's time to act," Lopez Obrador told reporters as thousands of Haitian and other migrants massed on Mexico's northern border seeking access into the United States. PEDRO PARDO / AFP/Getty Images

Yet, like many Black Americans, talking points about abolishing border control and enforcement do not readily find a home in my worldview. Many Black Americans find it counterproductive to advocate for open borders when Black Americans in particular compete with low wage workers for factory jobs, like at the Koch Foods chicken processing plants where an immigration raid led to higher wages and more jobs for the local Black community. And like many Americans, Black Americans now fight for retention and inclusion in high tech job environments—for which they now have to compete with visa recipients from other countries.

As Black Americans and descendants of U.S. slaves continue to fight for the civil rights we were promised, some fear an unregulated influx of immigrants would further marginalize Black Americans' position in the social and political system, decreasing the likelihood that the needs of descendants of U.S. slavery would be prioritized, if they are ever addressed at all.

And this is not just a concern for our community; our fates are entwined with America's more broadly. America matters deeply to the average Black American. The United States is not just home, after all; it's a home that was financed and built by our blood and sweat equity. With centuries' old roots in the United States, Black Americans who are descendants of American slaves are one of few American demographics who were not voluntary immigrants, yet we continue to choose America, day after day.

Of course, that's not to say that immigrants should be mistreated, heaven forbid. But it does spotlight a significant problem: Too often, it seems that folks expect Black people not to push back when policies and laws negatively affect our priorities and position. Black Americans are expected not to advocate specifically for ourselves. And as part of this, we are expected to deny the reality of how immigration laws have affected the sociopolitical outcomes of Black America—while those who claim to advocate on our behalf increasingly push policies that seem a lot like open borders.

Of course, in an ideal world, everyone would have access to the American Dream. But in the meantime, America owes a huge debt to descendants of American slaves. We are overdue a large portion of the American pie, yet we are expected to watch—even applaud—as it's sometimes served up to people from other countries.

It is also the case that America does in fact have responsibilities to other countries. Our impact on Africa, Central and South America, and even Haiti has been immeasurable and devastating, and we owe every refugee a fair needs assessment, including, potentially, an asylum hearing. Haitian migrants who are legitimately seeking sanctuary at our southern border are fleeing a country that has been devastated by natural, man-made, and politically motivated disasters—ones America has participated in.

But that does not necessarily mean that we can or should provide amnesty to everyone who demands it. It is our obligation to ensure we aren't compounding the harm that has been caused by us and others—but it is not America's responsibility to "save" the world. We can preserve the integrity of our national security and border while making a commitment to not traumatize or retraumatize migrants, regardless of our final assessment of their refugee claim.

We can—we must—safeguard the wellbeing of those in our custody, citizen and noncitizen alike. And we can and must demand a reasoned analysis of the sociopolitical impact of immigration amnesty on our community specifically, and how the financial and social costs of loose border security affects our fate in our home.

And while it is sometimes difficult for people to hold two truths at once, we must do just that—even when it is Black people at our border.

Pamela Denise Long is CEO of Youthcentrix® Therapy Services, a business focused on helping organizations implement trauma-informed practices and diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism (DEIA) at the systems level. Denise is creator of "Humane Antiracism," an online training process that puts dialogue and relationships at the center of antiracist problem solving within networks. Connect with Ms. Long online at or @YOUTHCENTRIX on social media.

The views in this article are the writer's own.