BY RUTH ETIESIT SAMUEL | Teen Vogue
In the final presidential debate, in what felt like the midnight hour of an endless campaign, just six minutes and three seconds were allotted to a dialogue that shaped Donald Trump’s entire ascent to politics. Each debate felt like a perpetual will-they-or-won’t-they dance, waiting for the candidates to discuss it. Along with other immigrants and children of immigrants across the country, I listened to Trump lie about children being brought in “through cartels, through coyotes, and through gangs” and pat himself on the back for his policies, deflecting responsibility for the 545 children his administration separated from their parents at the border.
Trump’s career, campaign, and tenure in office have been built on xenophobia, filled with lofty promises of building a wall to keep Mexican “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” out. Despite fervent denial from the White House, the world read Trump’s reported comments about Haitians with AIDS and Nigerians living in huts, according to administration officials who spoke to the New York Times in 2018. These alleged remarks coupled with compounded verbal xenophobia translated into policies of violence, from the first Muslim ban and caging children to reports of forced hysterectomies performed on Black and Latinx women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. ICE, the doctor in question, and the hospital where the alleged surgeries would have taken place deny and reject these claims. However, forced sterilization and hysterectomies are not novel practices in the United States’ history; according to The Guardian, the United Nations denotes such measures as acts of genocide under international law. We’ve also seen Trump fuel anti-Asian xenophobia surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a spike in incidents of discrimination and hate crimes.
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Yet despite this escalation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence, there’s little serious discussion of it. There was hardly any mention of immigration in several of the Democratic primary debates, and seven months later, no mention at all in the first presidential debate. The fear-mongering rhetoric that, according to CNN’s 2016 exit polls, helped galvanize 52% of white women and 62% of white men to vote for President Trump in 2016 was ignored. This deafening silence is disappointing yet unsurprising for us Black immigrants, who are erased and left out of the conversation.
Since emigrating to the United States from England in 2000, no matter where we’ve lived, my family has always found a Nigerian community to depend on. We are the largest African diaspora group in America. More than a decade after our arrival, when I was in middle school, my family and I became citizens. During the 2016 election, 17-year-old Ruth was left to fend for myself in a Georgia classroom full of my white peers. After wasting time explaining (a) my existence and (b) that no one is coming to take their parents’ jobs, I quickly realized that my efforts were futile. The real problem wasn’t a labor or economic issue.
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Trump has always directed his hate speech towards Black and brown immigrants, and the reason is crystal clear. A 2015 Census Bureau report found that the U.S. is expected to become a majority nonwhite country by 2060, and white Americans are threatened at the prospect of being outnumbered by us. Confining the conversation about immigration to “border security” or restricting it to mere “economic anxiety” rather than calling it what it is — Trump trying to Make America White Again — ignores the white supremacy and imperialism driving these policies.
While the first “Muslim ban” garnered national protests and was halted in January 2017, it was reincarnated in the form of an “Africa ban,” restricting immigration from six majority-Muslim countries in Africa. With Libya and Somalia already on the list, there was something different about this one. Passed shortly after the impeachment saga, it was sneakier and more insidious. It also directly affected and separated my family. On January 31, 2020, Trump signed an executive order restricting visas for individuals from the following countries: Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Nigeria. My heart sank for my young cousins abroad who would no longer be able to emigrate here.
Days before the ban, in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the implementation of an immigrant wealth test, stating that those who may depend on government assistance (i.e. Medicaid, food stamps, et cetera) would be deemed ineligible for visas. Black migrants live primarily in the Global South, where one in seven of the world’s population lives in urban poverty. This test reinforces efforts to prevent Black and brown immigrants from coming to America, further revealing the ugly underbelly of the United States as a country predicated on white fear.
On October 13, near Dallas, more than 200 Cameroonian and Congolese asylum-seekers were denied approval and sent to Prairieland Detention Center. According to the Los Angeles Times, some of the detained migrants say they were coerced by ICE officials who choked, beat, and threatened to kill them into signing deportation documents. Public outcries for help were ignored as two days later, they were forced to board a plane and return home. On October 7, human rights organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of eight of the detained migrants’ allegations of abuse and coercion. (A spokesperson for ICE told Teen Vogue that the agency could not comment because of the outstanding complaint filed with the DHS, but said that “in general, reports of sensationalist, unsubstantiated allegations…should be treated with the greatest of skepticism.” The spokesperson said the agency is “firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.”)
Bordering Nigeria, Cameroon is ravaged by war under the French Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), initially backed by U.S. forces in 2015 by the Obama administration. According to Amnesty International, there has been a surge in attacks upon English-speaking minority groups (Anglophones) and those living in Anglophone regions, leaving many injured, abducted, or killed. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are reports of exploitation, deaths, and serious injury of children laboring in mines as the result of Euro-American powers wanting to monopolize control over prized minerals in the region.
The United States desecrates, deprives, and defiles whole regions, just to tell their inhabitants they can’t come over here because they’re too Black, too brown, and too poor. Though President Trump’s wife is an immigrant, her whiteness and financial status absolve her of the vitriol and systemic barriers so many of us face on the rocky road to citizenship. According to tracking by the Refugee and Immigrant Center For Education and Legal Services (RAICES), as COVID-19 skyrocketed, so did the number of detained Black Haitian immigrants at Karnes County Residential Center, jumping from 29% to 44%. RAICES found that the bonds they pay for Haitian immigrants are 54% higher than what they have to pay for other immigrants, at a whopping $16,700 on average. Consequently, Black immigrants stay in ICE jails longer. Furthermore, there’s the issue of the prison-to-deportation pipeline. Though Black immigrants make up 7% of the noncitizen population, because Black communities are over-policed, we constitute 20% of those facing deportation, according to the ACLU.
The Trump administration’s Justice Department has even established an office for denaturalizations and Trump made unconstitutional threats in 2018 of ending birthright citizenship. Even with Senator Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Black Jamaican immigrant, on the Democratic Party ticket, this country is still not discussing the plight of Black immigrants. Instead, the conversation is divided into a binary — DACA recipients facing xenophobia and Black people experiencing racism — as though Black immigrants don’t find ourselves at the crux of this nation’s white supremacy.
Educational attainment, hard work, respectability politics, “good behavior” — none of it will protect us Nigerians, Black immigrants, and immigrants at large. Black immigrants exist and we are worthy of being included in the discussion; ignoring the apparent anti-Blackness in immigration policies begets white supremacy. While the United States brands itself as the land of dreams and “opportunity,” it offers little to none for anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, European immigrant.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” goes the often-quoted Emma Lazarus line inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
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