As this country and its institutions reckon with entrenched systemic racism, non-Black Latinx people and the immigrant rights movement that centers them are attempting to do the same. Last month, RAICES held a livestream on Black families in immigration detention with activists from Haitian Bridge Alliance and published comprehensive statistics on the Black immigrant experience, all to instill the point that “immigration is a Black issue.” Indeed, Black immigrants are disproportionately detained, held in solitary confinement, and deported, partly because ICE cooperates with local police who oversurveil Black communities. To their detriment, Black migrants have been erased from mainstream discussions of immigration, and more immigrant rights groups should take RAICES’ lead in amplifying Black-led migrant advocacy.
Such efforts acknowledge that anti-Blackness remains endemic to the modern immigrant rights movement because it marginalizes Black voices and centers a whitewashed notion of Latinidad. However, also insidious is the legal-reformist platform upon which many prominent and well-funded immigrant rights nonprofits operate, a structure that runs counter to decades of Black and Indigenous radical resistance.
In the Trump era, litigation-focused nonprofits have gained prominence amid extreme state violence against immigrants. In the 15 months following the 2016 election, the ACLU raised $120 million in online donations, despite previously averaging between $3 and $5 million per year. In June 2018, RAICES raised over $20 million, three times their annual budget and more than 40 times what the group raised in all of 2017. The RAICES fundraiser, organized independently through Facebook, ballooned in response to “zero tolerance,” the DOJ policy of separating families who crossed the border without authorization. Throughout Spring 2018, media coverage of migrants traumatized by the new policy commanded national outrage, including audio of separated children weeping in Customs and Border Protections custody, published by ProPublica, and a photo of two-year-old Yanela Sanchez crying in custody, which covered The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and Time. On June 30, Families Belong Together, a newly-founded coalition of nearly 250 social justice organizations, mobilized almost 500,000 protestors, then the largest nationwide action since the Women’s March.
Clearly, Americans were moved—not by the demands of immigrants, but by the portrayals of their suffering. The core demand of Families Belong Together was to end family separation and detention, but not the criminalization of migration. The RAICES fundraiser was organized to “reunite an immigrant parent with their child,” but not to free them indefinitely. The ACLU, which filed the first lawsuit against family separation, has sought to reunite separated families and win damages, but not to abolish the institutions that carried out the policy in the first place. These advocacy strategies attempt to use the law to reform itself and reduce migrant suffering, but they offer no meaningful strategies to realize migrant liberation.
As abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba warned in The New York Times in June, reform doesn’t end state violence, instead it performs “a kind of counterinsurgent function,” smothering discontent rather than addressing the root causes of harm. Likewise, the modern immigrant rights movement runs off the suffering it claims to abhor. The anti-radical, legal-based approach to immigrant rights is reactive, defensive, and most appealing to white, liberal donors rather than to immigrants themselves, whose immediate needs require more urgent, disruptive change that would threaten the donor class. Presently, most nonprofits have done the face-saving job of accepting Blackness, but only for how it might fit into their movements, rather than for how it could destabilize them. Institutions reliant on capital and courts cannot properly grapple with how our economic and legal systems are predicated on Black, Indigenous, and immigrant exploitation.
Black feminists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and others have done the decades-long work of mapping and realizing abolitionist futures. In the context of immigrant rights, organizers must not only support Black abolitionist thought, but apply these frameworks to their own contexts. In this way, we might produce a movement with more imaginative goals than to “Abolish ICE,” itself a reformist demand when the foundations of violence against immigrants are rooted in legal constructs of race, borders, and citizenship. Rapid response groups that work against the state rather than seek accommodations within, organized by and for working class immigrants, are the most likely to realize such goals. Detention Watch Network, which organizes collective action against detention, Movimiento Cosecha, which fosters mutual aid networks of undocumented immigrants, and Make the Road, which organizes immigrant worker power, are three of many shining examples.
Using Black and Indigenous organizing as models, each has a tendency to challenge oppressors rather than spotlight oppression, offering strategies to eliminate harm that center immigrants (not attorneys) as the most powerful agents of their own liberation . Legal-focused nonprofits cannot and do not adopt these same frameworks, and so we must look at their accumulation of power and resources with skepticism, rather than praise. A better, more collaborative movement for migrant liberation is possible.