BAJI: Help for Black Immigrants
By Dianne Anderson
Cages aren’t just for Brown immigrants.
By virtue of the numbers, Black people in America are more likely to get stopped and jailed over any other group, with the most educated among them more likely to be criminalized than their immigrant peers.
Nana Gyamfi, a human rights and civil rights attorney, said Blacks, in general, are targets for police stops, resulting in more Black immigrants being swept up, and served up harsher penalties because of immigrant status.
In the Los Angeles area, Gyamfi handles cases in the courtroom, and files paperwork across the board. It’s where she sees the mass criminalization of Black immigrants, the kind that people don’t talk about.
“If you’re Nigerian, the issue is fraud. If you’re Jamaican, the issue is drugs. Suddenly you find yourself criminalized not just for your race, but because you come from a particular country,” she said.
There is no question that Black immigrants contribute to society, she said.
African students pull the best grades in higher education over their colleagues, including Asians and whites. But while Black immigrants have also fought for immigrant protections and civil rights, the report argues they remain largely invisible and their needs go unmet.
“Our community continues to lack critical resources, including language access, legal services, adequate healthcare, educational opportunities, and good jobs,” she said.
In a recent report, researchers found that African, Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrants face barriers in getting their state driver’s licenses. Each year, thousands of Black immigrants face detention or deportation resulting from criminalization, and many more have their applications for legal status rejected.
“In a state in which the overwhelming majority of immigrants hail from Latin America or Asia, it can seem easy to ignore the relatively small population of Black immigrants,” the report said.
In the “State of Black Immigrants in California,” the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) looks at the attack on immigrants under the current Trump administration, and how the state has managed to maintain progressive policies to expand immigrant protections in health care, and a commitment to its “sanctuary cities.”
The report concluded that moving forward requires supporting the development of independent Black immigrant organizations with a broader range in California with a national reach to further policy agendas.
Gyamfi, whose parents are both from Ghana, said she is considered a second generation immigrant, but she considers herself a Ghanaian girl that was put together in Berkeley with a law degree.
For the past 12 years that she has been with BAJI, she has pushed to unite Black immigrants and African Americans around racial justice and common areas of impact to the global Black community. Her goal has been to build that movement, connecting with other black-led organizations on the same mission.
She believes there is strength in numbers, and in unity.
“In this country, the only thing that has ever moved is because the people, with a capital “P’ have moved them. Generally, organized movements make it happen,” she said.
The other issue is the massive amount of money involved as the overwhelming majority of detention centers are contracted between the federal government and private entities.
“You still have millions, probably billions, going into private prisons and the detention of immigrants, particularly Black immigrants. That money could be going toward other things at the federal level, be it education, healthcare programs to assist in the community,” she said.
At both local and national level, Black immigrants face a housing crisis. Even beyond the need to protect the undocumented, she said there is a need to protect human rights, education, and dignity that all human beings should be entitled to.
Freedom cities are another example of the organization’s priority policy work. Bail reform is also important, as most people have a right to post bail, even if it runs into the unaffordable millions of dollars. However, there are only limited situations where there is no right to bail.
Immigration is one.
“Especially with the recent Supreme Court decision about bonds (bail), it’s possible that you can be an immigrant and detained indefinitely without given an opportunity to bond yourself out,” she said. “And yet the immigration process is allegedly civil, not a criminal process.”
It’s not that the immigrants are accused of a crime, she said. People accused of crimes go to criminal court, but immigration court is not a criminal court, meaning they may not have the right to bond.
“We have people that have been in jail over a year, caged in immigration detention without an opportunity to bond out, who haven’t committed any crime.”
Eventually, Gyamfi hopes BAJI and advocates can get to the point of power through policy change, and to see more changes instituted on a national scale. BAJI’s latest State of Black Immigrants report, also shows that more than one of every five noncitizens facing deportation on criminal grounds before the Executive Office for Immigration Review are Black.
Despite higher education, the report finds that Black immigrants face higher unemployment in service and sales positions compared to their peers of other immigrant backgrounds. Also, that Black immigrants are more vulnerable when stopped by the police for minor offenses, such as broken tail lights and traffic violations.
BAJI is part of an effort in spearheading “Freedom cities,” which goes beyond sanctuary cities to specifically look at ways society can divest from the carceral system – whether immigration detention centers or prisons and jails– to invest in communities.
“It’s coming up with creative ways to deal with it inside the system as well as outside the system,” she said.
For more information, see www.blackalliance.org, or contact the BAJI legal workshop of Tadios Assefa at 310.867.1320