Illustration by Amir Khadar
Illustration by Amir Khadar

As the rates of coronavirus have increased, so have the rates of anxiety and depression. For the past year, many have struggled to process grief, worry, and loneliness simultaneously. This challenge has been extraordinary in Black communities that have not only been disproportionately impacted by the virus itself, but also by lack of social support and relief. Additionally, the simultaneous occurrence of the pandemic and national uprisings emphasized that Black folks are not afforded safety in this country. However, it is also important to note that the adverse impact of the state on the mental health of Black folks did not begin in 2020. As long as actors and institutions like the police, ICE, and doctors who abuse their power exist, our mental health will continue to be compromised. 

At the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, it was this knowledge that fueled our desire to research the mental health and wellness of Black immigrants. Specifically, we desired to focus on the mental health of Black immigrant women and femmes given the unique challenges that we experience due to the intersection of misogynoir, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and the unfair burden of caregiving that is oftentimes placed on our shoulders. Our Stories and Visions: Gender in Black Immigrant Communities, released this month, is a collection of both heartbreaking anecdotes and tangible, revolutionary visions. 

Our work to actualize this project began in summer 2019. With the help of our Gender Justice Research Fellows, we began the process of interviewing Black immigrant women and femmes in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Miami. Each participant was asked 29 questions that ranged from “Have you ever been to counseling/therapy?” to “How does it make you feel when you hear about ICE raids, detention centers, deportations, and anti-immigrant rhetoric/policies?” Due to the diversity and depth of the questions we asked, interviews that we thought would last 30-45 minutes lasted as long as three-and-a-half hours. 

Several participants shared that our interview process was the first time that they were open about their sexuality, their thoughts on religion, and the impact that the medical industrial complex has had on their mental and physical health. Many of our participants elaborated on how the strong Black woman stereotype has been weaponized against them. They shared how they strived towards the myth of perfection and how their family members enabled their behavior by reminding them of the sacrifices they made to migrate. 

Despite the fact that over 95% of our participants voiced that they have a support system and that they practice self care, we sensed that many of our participants were deeply exhausted. It is hard to navigate fighting for your survival in a system that makes that simple goal seem impossible. 

For example, one participant in our study shared that due to lack of language access in their workplace, they did not know they could take breaks to go to the restroom. Another participant shared that her daughter’s elementary school teachers packed up her belongings and told her that she does not belong in a private school. Another participant shared that in order to receive decent medical care she has to pretend to the doctor that her family are aware of the appointment so that her concerns are not dismissed. The report paints a grim picture of how the systems and structures that are theoretically supposed to save us are ironically the places where we are most fearful for our lives. 

However, despair is not our only narrative. While we, as Black immigrants, are subjected to great harm we also find innovative ways to center our joy, pleasure and dreams. For our final interview question, we asked participants: “How would you use $1 million to support the mental health of Black immigrant women/femmes?” The results that this question generated are breathtaking. 

From creating therapy ice trucks to creating an underground railroad for mental health care, our report embodies the expansive imaginations of Black immigrant women and femmes. While some may interpret these visions as lofty dreams, we view them as guidelines to create programs and policies that are for us, by us. 

While many are relieved by the inauguration of President Joe Biden, it is clear that if there is not a sweeping move to dismantle the systems and structures that oppress Black folks in this country, we will still be far from liberation. For example, while it’s important to provide relief due to the pandemic, our report demonstrates that until we abolish the medical industrial complex, Black people will continue to develop preventable conditions that leave them more susceptible to succumbing to viruses like COVID-19. 

Our report demonstrates the magic that happens when you simply listen to Black immigrants. Can you imagine the magic that would be possible if we actualize these visions? 

Catherine Labiran is an award-winning poet, researcher and human rights advocate. As BAJI’s Gender Justice Program Coordinator, Catherine leads gender-based research and advocacy initiatives.