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The incident on September 19th, 2021 in Del Rio, Texas served as a reminder to the general public of the United States what most Black people in this country already knew– state-sanctioned violence against Black people is woven into the very fabric of all systems of U.S. governance.
The enraging images of Border Patrol on horseback attacking Haitian asylum seekers a year ago, were viscerally jarring yet not surprising. The photos captured what Black migrants and advocates sounded the alarm on for years– immigration is a Black issue and anti-Black discrimination, and violence is a daily occurrence at the southern border as well as in the interior of the U.S.
Like the videos of George Floyd’s murder, which served to jolt the country into a space of racial reckoning, the Del-Rio photos served as the painful shock needed to highlight the cruelty of the immigration system at large and its unique and disproportionate harms against Black immigrants. As with the photos of whip marks on the backs of the formerly enslaved, the Floyd video and the Del-Rio images met the painfully high evidentiary standard required for the U.S. government and general public to empathize with more than 200 years of violence against Black people.
For years Black immigrant advocates attempted to bring attention to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) use of force on Black immigrants.
We made arguments highlighting the psychological trauma of chaining the feet, waist, and wrists of Black people and transporting them from immigration cage to cage or deporting them back to dangerous conditions, often in the dead of night. We’ve painstakingly explained how similar these practices were to practices used during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As advocates and directly impacted people, we have carried the trauma of having to paint these pictures of our pain for the sake of advocacy. We heard the Biden-Harris administration’s campaign promises of prioritizing racial equity and fought to hold them accountable for their words. We urged the Administration to create a White House Task Force on Black Immigrants, to better understand and put an end to the misconduct of ICE and CBP, and all other immigration agencies.
We know that forced hysterectomies and subsequent deportations of Black immigrant women, deaths in ICE/CBP custody, disproportionately high rates of deportation and detention and bond amounts don’t occur in a vacuum. These issues stem from the white supremacist roots of the Department of Homeland Security and as such Black immigrants will always bear the heaviest brunt of an already cruel agency.
The investigation of the Del Rio incident was an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to finally heed the call of Black immigrant communities and advocates. It has been a year and the Biden Administration has failed Black immigrants, once again. Instead of an open dialogue with the asylum seekers harmed during the incident and advocacy groups who regularly work with Haitian migrants, the administration chose to investigate itself with little to no input or interaction with those most impacted.
On July 8, almost ten months after the incident and just weeks after the burial of several migrants who died due to medical neglect or fell victim to U.S. immigration deterrence policies such as Title 42, CBP released its final Del Rio investigation report. With no interviews with victims, the investigation concluded that border patrol agents did not strike any migrants with reins, but that their use of force was necessary. This gaslighting conclusion contradicts the collective anguish many of us felt and still feel at the sight of those infamous images. This insulting style of blatant dishonesty from an agency with a history of abuse is unfortunately all too familiar. It follows the centuries-old tactics of denying the truth of anti-Black state-sanctioned violence in the U.S. Acknowledging harm is the first step towards healing and justice, not denial and gaslighting as the administration did in its self-serving report. It is also noteworthy that very few immigrant rights or civil rights organizations spoke up against the absurdity of CBP’s investigation of itself and its concluding report.
Like the uproar of Black Lives Matter statements and content during the first few days after the George Floyd murder, the Del Rio images, received an instant reaction of surface-level sympathy. CBP’s report came out on a Friday afternoon as most pieces of bad news from the administration tend to come out. People in the immigration advocacy space are accustomed to quickly analyzing and coming up with high-level responses to administration reports, decisions, executive orders, etc. within a matter of hours. It has been several months now, and the silence of the immigrant’s rights movements and other non-Black civil rights organizations is palpable.
CBP is proposing disciplinary action for several of its agents involved in the Del Rio incidents but refuses to reveal what exactly the disciplinary actions would be. The process is ongoing and will be finalized by CBP’s office of Professional Responsibility. The agents involved have a right to later appeal whatever disciplinary measures are lodged against them. “There is no room in our agency for discrimination or intolerance,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said at a press conference. “CBP is dedicated to ensuring the fair and just treatment of all people.”
This statement is laughable given the historic and current racism of the agency Magnus leads.
The inaction of the Biden-Harris Administration and the subsequent silence of the broader immigrant rights movement shows that the unique harms faced by Black immigrants do not happen in a vacuum. Anti-Blackness is unfortunately universal, and even though immigration is a Black issue, Democratic administrations and progressive organizations continue to fail Black immigrants.
Haddy Gassama, Esq., is national director of policy and advocacy for the UndocuBlack Network [undocublack.org]