Yacouba, a political activist in Ivory Coast, knew if he didn’t immediately flee his home country, he wouldn’t survive.
After being threatened, attacked and tortured by people sympathetic to those in power, Yacouba fled his country in 2018. He went to Brazil for a few years, then made a perilous trek through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico before finally arriving in the United States.
The journey was one of the two most challenging periods of his life. The second was being detained as a Black immigrant in the U.S.
As the nation celebrates Juneteenth — a day commemorating the emancipation of African Americans who had been enslaved in the United States — as a federal holiday for the first time, Black Americans and immigrants are fighting to dismantle institutional racism, including within the immigration system. Black immigrants are disproportionately detained, receive higher bond costs, and say they face racist treatment within detention centers.
Recognizing and celebrating the emancipation of slaves is vital, activists say ― but continuing to take down systemic racism needs to come with it.
“From an immigration perspective, Black immigrants face disproportionate levels of detention and exclusion,” Diana Konate, policy director at the advocacy group African Communities Together, said Thursday on a press call. “These can be life-threatening, as Black immigrants often get deported back to unsafe and dangerous conditions. While we celebrate the victories, we keep in mind that a lot of work remains.”
Immigration As A Black Issue
More than 40 million Black Americans reside in the U.S. More than 4.2 million are Black immigrants, most of whom were born in the Caribbean or African nations, and that number is only growing, according to a 2018 Pew Research Study.
Although Black native-born Americans and Black immigrant communities have their differences, both contend with high levels of discrimination and the lingering impacts of slavery and institutionalized racism.
“The reality is, as we are celebrating, we want to take the time to honor our ancestors who paid the price for us to be here as a Black immigrant, an immigrant descendant of slaves,” said Guerline Jozef, the executive director of a coalition to help Haitian immigrants called the Haitian Bridge Alliance. “I understand and honor those who have come before.”
In 2018, former President Donald Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” when discussing immigration, according to people in the room. He then attempted to terminate temporary protected status, or TPS, for Haitians, although he was blocked in court.
Last month, Joe Biden’s administration announced that it would be extending TPS for eligible Haitian immigrants, a win celebrated by immigration advocates.
But there is more to be done, Jozef said. She called on the administration to provide protections for Black immigrants coming from countries such as Cameroon, the Bahamas and Mauritania.
“Immigration is a Black issue. Immigration is a racial issue. Immigration is a social justice issue, and as a Black woman, I cannot separate my immigration status away from my Blackness,” Jozef said. “So as we continue to celebrate, with our brothers and sisters on this Juneteenth, we will also continue to push for liberation and freedom for all people.”
Discriminated Against While Detained
Yacouba, who is being referred to with a pseudonym because he fears retaliation, was immediately apprehended by immigration officials when he crossed the southern border in October 2020. He has since been held at the South Texas Detention Complex as he waits for the asylum office to review his case.
He hasn’t been able to see his fiancee, who also immigrated to the U.S., or meet his daughter, who was born while he was in detention.
Yacouba, who suffers from asthma and chronic sinusitis, said his requests to see a doctor are frequently dismissed, and that others have been released quickly while he remains detained.
I thought that discrimination and racism were over in America. In fact, it is not. It has changed face, but it is still there.
“I know it is because I am Black. If I had been white, they would not have done that with me,” Yacouba said. “I felt horrible. I thought that discrimination and racism were over in America. In fact, it is not. It has changed face, but it is still there.”
Yacouba said he began to have suicidal thoughts while detained. He said he sought help from a psychiatrist through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but was instead put in solitary confinement without his asthma medications and was not given the ability to speak with his attorney.
An ICE spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency was firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody but did not elaborate further.
On this Juneteenth, Yacoba is wondering whether the U.S. is truly progressing on the issue of racial equity.
“I feel completely trapped. All I want is to be with my family and my child,” he said. “Why is it always that Black people must suffer so much?”