Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, “the linchpin of the current constitutional system” that allowed for birthright citizenship, granting citizenship to formerly enslaved people and promising equal protection of the laws. More than 150 years after these promises were made to African Americans, the country has yet to deliver on them.
It seems like an interesting moment to reflect on this milestone given the nationwide uprisings as part of the Movement for Black Lives. The United States has long wielded citizenship as a weapon, using it as a means of exclusion and division. In the year 2020, African Americans still do not have full citizenship and white Americans are just beginning to grapple with the understanding that the country operates within a racial caste system and the systems built to protect them are rooted in white supremacy. Whether it is law enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security, there is a clear divide among those who these systems were intended to protect and those whose safety was never a concern.
In thinking through the concept of full citizenship, Prism reached out to Ola Osaze, the director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), which protects and defends Black queer and trans migrants from immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems. Black immigrants are the prime targets of two violent systems: immigration and the criminal justice system—better known as “crimmigation.” We wanted to talk to Osaze about the unique insights that only Black LGBTQ+ migrants can provide during this moment of reckoning. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: I saw something recently on social media that said something like, “If you ever said ‘abolish ICE’ then you better also be saying ‘defund the police.’” I don’t disagree, but I also think that’s a really interesting binary. You and I have talked about ‘crimmigation’ and how Black immigrants like Zsa Zsa are at the center of it. Talk to me about how abolish ICE and defund the police are definitely different and separate conversations, but also very related.
Ola Osaze: Policing and police violence and immigration enforcement and the violence within it are two branches of the same tree. It’s important to understand that they are connected and that they are part of a broader system that is aimed at harming, caging, and killing Black folks. Police are the first contact most Black immigrants have with the deportation system. Many Black immigrants live in communities that are subject to heavy policing, so we are more likely to get racially profiled and can end up in immigrant prisons and then deported. That understanding makes it very clear what our mandate is as a community and why we as Black immigrants also need to be in the streets during this moment of uprising and why the Black Lives Matter movement is core to our experiences and our organizing work.
Vasquez: I’m starting to see more reporting on crimmigation, but so little of it focuses on Black immigrant communities who are really at the center of this system.
Osaze: Which is why we are not just fighting to both abolish the policing system and the immigration enforcement system, but also doing education around that. Police violence results in the harming and killing of Black folks. Black folks are harmed and killed in the immigration system. Black immigrants also get killed by police violence. There’s also the way in which the police and ICE interact and collude. Black migrants, folks in detention, folks in deportation proceedings oftentimes are coming in the immigration system through the criminal punishment system— they have been racially profiled or they were walking while trans and assumed to be sex workers. Even if someone isn’t convicted of anything, they are often turned over to ICE and put in immigration detention. Because of homophobia and transphobia layered with anti-Black racism, Black LGBTQ+ migrants who are undocumented are forced into homelessness and an underground economy, which makes them vulnerable to interactions with police that subsequently results in arrests, detention, and deportation. The way that crimmigation works in our communities is not an abstract thing; it’s very clear.
I also think a lot about the legacy of slavery and its relationship to policing.
Vasquez: Does this history shape how BLMP does work?
Osaze: It definitely influences how I think about the systems we are fighting. The culture of policing that we have in this country was born from catching slaves who dared to escape, and the legacy of colonization is also part of the legacy of slavery. Colonization gave birth to the legacy of chattel slavery in the U.S. Colonization is also the reason why many of us [Black immigrants] end up in places like the U.S. Forced migration is a legacy of colonization, and the forced migration of Black migrants is fueled by U.S. foreign policies and religious influences that lead to political instability, decimated economies, the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, and worsening conditions for women in Black majority countries. It’s this state-sanctioned persecution that forces many of us to migrate to the U.S. But because we are Black or Black and trans or Black and queer, we get to the U.S. and become ensnared in the policing system and the immigration enforcement system. I still think of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration’s 2016 report as a game changer that showed how a high percentage of Black folks in the deportation proceedings came into the system because they were arrested by the police.
Vasquez: When I first started covering immigration as a reporter, “creating a pathway to citizenship” was a central ask in a lot of activism. The conversation seems to have really shifted. I don’t know if a pathway to citizenship began to feel too unattainable or if it has just become more important to address the daily conditions that make undocumented people’s lives hard, but I feel like the public narrative has definitely moved away from citizenship. Does that seem like an accurate read to you?
Osaze: To quote my comrade Alan Pelaez Lopez, “Citizenship is a very small ask.” Let’s remember: George Floyd was a citizen. Nina Pop was a citizen. Tony McDade was a citizen. These folks were still killed. BLMP’s goal is not about fighting for a pathway to citizenship. Part of our work is pointing out who stands to benefit from criminalizing and imprisoning us here in the U.S. There are millions of mostly Black people in U.S. prisons, including tens of thousands in immigrant prisons, where slave labor takes place on a mass scale. You have nationwide attempts by the Trump administration to eliminate voting rights for Black people and bar us from the census in an attempt to further cut us away from political power and survival. Who benefits from that? Who benefits from destabilizing our home countries through increased U.S. military presence, propping up corrupt governments, sabotaging movements for justice led by marginalized communities, allowing U.S. and foreign corporations to exploit people, land, and resources such that many of us have no choice but to flee?
Vasquez: Citizenship almost has no bearing.
Osaze: Citizenship is a survival mechanism. I don’t ever want to discount the importance of that. I’m a citizen now and I know many folks in the BLMP community are striving towards citizenship so that they can survive, not even thrive. I mean survive literally, like they have the ability to feed themselves, to house themselves, to clothe themselves, that kind of basic stuff.
But this doesn’t protect Black people from getting killed by the police. It doesn’t protect Black trans women from getting killed. It doesn’t stop racial profiling. So you’re right, it’s definitely not the primary goal. The primary goal is getting us free. For us, the root of that is dismantling systems like capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism that kill and cage [Black people]. It’s also about investing in mechanisms that would actually allow us to thrive. So for us, that looks like focusing on the conditions that lead to homophobic and transphobic violence, the conditions that lead to state-sanctioned violence. How do we rectify the conditions that exist as a result of the pillaging of our homelands and the pillaging of Black communities here? How do you rectify hundreds of years of slavery? I think as queer and trans Black migrants who are here in the U.S., the belly of the beast, we can use our vantage point to address the conditions that forced us to migrate and help people understand that even when we as Black migrants have the privilege of becoming a citizen, it doesn’t prevent our murder and caging. Our fight can’t stop at becoming American if [being American] means we represent the subjugation of Black bodies across the world.
Vasquez: I recently re-read portions of the 1619 Project and I revisited an interview I did with the project’s creator, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who told me that the goal of all of her work is to make sure Black people have “full citizenship.” So I started to think about this idea of full citizenship in relation to immigration and how accessing citizenship—or papers, in other words—does not mean people are free in the United States. It doesn’t mean liberation. It doesn’t mean full citizenship. How do you think of citizenship in relation to liberation?
Osaze: I steer clear of that word “citizenship” because it’s a loaded word. I think instead of what it would take for us to have the ability and the agency to be safe, to build strong communities, and have resources at our disposal that help our communities survive and thrive and that provide mechanisms for transformative justice when harm happens in the community. I think of how each of us should have a stake in building and maintaining what it is that helps us be free and safe and supported while surrounded by strong communities. When we are sick, we would have access to health care that will make us better. Our lives would be valued, and we would be treated like we are valued. None of these things have been possible for Black people, even when we have the piece of paper that says we are a citizen of the United States. When you add layers of queerness and transness, when someone is disabled, the conditions for them only get worse.
The uprisings we are seeing are hopefully driving us toward overturning these toxic systems that are literally invested in making sure we are not free and that we do not have full citizenship. A deep investment has been made in ensuring Black lives aren’t valued. Just as much of an investment needs to be made to make sure we get to full citizenship one day.
Vasquez: In talking about these connections, now I’m thinking about something I saw on BLMP’s social media recently. It was a reference to “forced migration.” I think most people have seen that phrase in reference to enslaved people, but likely not in relation to how we talk about migration. The language was very striking to me. Talk to me about BLMP’s use of that phrasing.
Osaze: Let me answer that by first telling you that recently a few BLMP folks did a small delegation to Nigeria to connect with LGBTQ+ organizations there. We wanted to connect and build relationships to learn about what people were experiencing, what people needed, and to share the reality of what’s happening here [in the U.S.] to Black migrants, queer and trans Black migrants, and for Black people overall. One thing really struck me—but was not surprising because I feel the same way—was that many LGBTQ+ folks didn’t want to leave Nigeria; it was the last thing they wanted to do.
Vasquez: I think that’s a huge gap in mainstream immigration narratives. Not everyone is clamoring to come to the U.S., some feel like they’re out of options or they have every intention of eventually going back to their home countries.
Osaze: Exactly. I mean, who really wants to uproot themselves from everything they know and love, from a place where they have history, where they have family, where they have lineage and a deep connection to culture? If conditions were different, I would be back home. I would not be here. I would be living in Nigeria amongst my community, but there has been a whole scale criminalization of LGBTQ+ folks through law and again, it connects to the legacy of colonization. Our criminalization is now enshrined in law, which is the reason so many folks are forced to leave. This doesn’t even touch on the political and economic realities of Nigeria. These aren’t the only narratives I want people to know about Nigeria, which has so much complexity, beauty, and a rich powerful history. But it’s important to make clear what makes Nigeria so unlivable for those of us who leave; the U.S. is implicated in that.
This is the lens that we talk about forced migration from. Maybe people don’t want that history lesson, but it is important to make the connection between the colonization of Black majority countries, the legacy of that colonization for hundreds of years, and the ways that Black majority countries are still reeling from these impacts. This is what forces people to migrate. Their countries have been pillaged and decimated, they are unsafe, and so they put their life at risk to come here [to the U.S.]. Some people die along the way. Some get here and they end up in jail or detention. Why would they choose to do this if they didn’t feel forced?
Vasquez: That historical context and the conversation around the root causes of migration is critical. In the media, we do a bad job of making these connections and I feel like we’re kind of seeing that play out now in the lack of media narratives that link immigration to the Movement for Black Lives. I think of the 1996 laws, broken windows policing, all of these things that have had catastrophic effects on Black immigrant and African American communities.
Osaze: You’re right, these connections aren’t being made clear enough by the media, but I think this is a good place to talk about the immigrant justice movement for a second and how limited the demands have been and how limited the narratives have been because of anti-Blackness. Within the immigrant justice movement, Black folks are still not seen as an important part of the movement. Our experiences are not centered and are treated as inconvenient to the narratives and demands waged around immigrant justice. That was the case 10 years ago and that’s the case today.
So it’s a problem with the media, but it’s also just a problem. Some of the largest organizations in the movement are just now reckoning with the fact that Black migrants exist and they’ve built their entire organization disconnected from Black communities—not just Black migrant communities but Black communities generally. The resources that have gone into the immigrant justice movement have added to the problem by choosing to prioritize non-Black migrant-led work that doesn’t address anti-Blackness. Dismantling anti-Blackness is not a mandate.
What’s interesting to me is that I actually think there has been some narrative shifts in the media when it comes to how immigration from Latin America is written about. Generally yes, there is a lack of global perspective, but you do see some connections being made to the conditions in Central America, for example, and tying those conditions to U.S. intervention. That analysis is lacking for people who come from Black-majority countries and that analysis is especially lacking for LGBTQ+ folks who come from Black-majority countries. That harms our movement because if those narratives and understandings are missing, the demands are limited and that’s how Black migrants get left out.
Vasquez: The erasure is really harmful, but as an outsider, it also seems like the larger immigrant justice movement is doing such a disservice to itself.
Osaze: Given the identities that we hold and our lived experiences, we live in the intersections within the intersections. We know all about the systems that folks are fighting against because we have marshaled up our entire movement against it. Whatever strategies developed by communities like ours will ensure the liberation of everybody.
We were talking earlier about what full citizenship would look like—if society changed so that people like us were safe and valued and our communities were strong—that would extend to everyone else who experiences more privilege than us. We have really powerful insights into how we can get there together. For example, if society is structured in such a way that Black trans migrant women can thrive, then I’m good, you’re good, we’re all good. That is the society I want.