The Calm Before the Black History Month Storm 

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By this time next week, there will be a flurry of statements, social media posts, and other public displays of solidarity with Black people, from elected officials, immigrants’ rights organizations, and other “change-makers.”

This whirlwind of love and support will come weeks after the status quo, business as usual response to The Bronx fire that took 17 Black, immigrant and Muslim lives. The worst fire New York has seen in over 30 years, found me in Atlanta, wrapping up a holiday visit with my family. I texted my supervisor and colleagues, as my family and I watched news coverage of fellow Gambians and other West African immigrants being pushed on stretchers and whisked away in ambulances. Within minutes of confirming some of the urgent needs impacted people had, the UndocuBlack team began to make calls and arrangements to be in The Bronx the following day. 

As with the mass deportation of Black migrants early last year, and the horrific violence waged against Black migrants in Del Rio, we instinctively moved to protect, comfort, and advocate for our communities. Through the pain, grief and rage of surviving year after year of state-sanctioned violence, we assess the needs at hand, coordinate immediate responses as well as strategize for long-term solutions. This type of response is not uniquely crafted for Black immigrant organizations. At the height of Trump’s Muslim Bans and Family separation policy, we saw unified outrage and coordinated advocacy efforts across the immigrant’s rights movement.

I remember going to Dulles airport as a law student and being surrounded by immigration attorneys and advocates, who showed up at the airport, without being asked, ready to help anyone impacted by the Islamophobic policy. They sat around baggage claims, laptops and bluebooks in hand waiting to assist anyone whose family member was caught in the chaos of ‘the travel ban’. After the baggage claim attorneys and advocates left, and the sh*thole country remarks and Africa ban were implemented, the fight to end the policy was left up to the will of the courts, and a few organizations.

Many Black immigrant families were separated for years and births and burials were missed. While advocacy continued around the Muslim/Africa ban, the sense of urgency and unified call to action fell silent. By the time the Biden Administration lifted the travel bans, irreparable damage had been done. This pattern of jolts of energy, followed by silence or sometimes no immediate reaction at all has become the norm when it comes to issues that directly impact Black immigrants. 

After weeks of being in The Bronx and listening to people who survived the fire ask about immigration relief, I can’t help but wonder if the reaction to this tragedy would’ve been different if the community most impacted by the fire were not Black. Seventeen immigrants died in the worst fire New York City has seen in decades and only a handful of social media condolences were posted by non-Black immigrants’ rights groups. No statements. No outrage. Little to no effort in coordinating immigration relief advocacy for those impacted by the fire. The groups that made Juneteenth an organizational holiday and proclaimed that Black lives matter as if it was a novel concept that sprang from the summer 2020 uprisings, barely acknowledged the loss of 17 Black lives. To say that I’m remotely shocked, would be a lie.

The lives of the hundreds of Black babies deported by the Biden Administration during Black History Month last year were also barely acknowledged. As the immigrant’s rights movement reflects on the first year of the Biden Administration and the multiple ways, he failed immigrant communities, I am reflecting on how the immigrant’s rights movement continues to fail Black immigrant communities. 

This time last year, I and many of my Black immigrant colleagues were urging our non-Black colleagues to leverage whatever influence they had to stop deportation flights to Majority Black countries across Africa and the Caribbean. We had the difficult conversations, formed a working group, and were told the movement would do better. One year, thousands of deportations, and 17 preventable deaths later, here we are experiencing another period of silence and ambivalence. The survivors of The Bronx fire bear the names and faces of the millions of people the movement constantly invokes and for whom they claim to advocate when pushing for federal immigration legislation and Executive actions. Their images and stories might be used when convenient,  yet their humanity and need for immediate immigration relief is willfully ignored. 

As I brace myself for Black History Month collaboration requests, I am also sitting in discomfort and dissonance with the movement I work within. The tension between my identity as a Black, Muslim, immigrant, and the spaces I’ve worked in have always been there. Racism, anti-Blackness and elitism exist in the immigrants’ right space the same way they exist in all other public interest and corporate spaces. What is peculiar about our movement is that it inflicts the harm it claims to be fighting against, on those working within the movement as well the communities it is claiming to protect. 

As the immigrant community that lost 17 of its members continues to mourn while fearing deportation, and elected officials are introducing legislation about space heater safety and not landlord negligence, the immigrants’ rights movement will likely remain silent.

That is until the Black History Month posts start rolling in. 

Words By: Haddy Gassama, UndocuBlack Network, Policy and Advocacy Director

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