Florida, US must end Black immigrant discrimination


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File photo shows mounted U.S. Border Patrol agents attempting to stop Black migrants crossing the border into Texas in September.


Recent images of angry white men on horseback, whirling reins like whips, pursuing and grabbing terrified Black men shocked many Americans. If a person channel surfing had landed on that image, they might have thought they were watching a feature film about pre-Civil War days when vicious agents of Southern enslavers hunted desperate Black men and women fleeing slavery. It was a haunting scene right out of the most deplorable chapters in U.S. history.

Except it wasn’t a movie. These images were of current U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers chasing down unarmed Haitian refugees near the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas. The outcry from elected officials — both Democrats and Republicans — was immediate. President Joe Biden ordered an investigation. He promised those responsible would pay a price.

That price has yet to be paid.

Harsher treatment

If not for the presence of one news photographer, the world would never have witnessed how those border agents treated Black refugees seeking a new life in the United States. But, in reality, that news photographer captured just a glimpse of how Black migrants are mistreated every day throughout our immigration system where Black people regularly face harsher, more violent treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities.

Statistics reveal part of that pattern. Just as Black U.S. citizens have a greater likelihood per capita of being stopped by police, arrested and convicted of crimes than other Americans, Black immigrants face the same prejudice.

According to a 2016 report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, even though Black immigrants are no more likely than other immigrants to commit crimes, they are more than twice as likely to be placed in deportation proceedings for an alleged criminal offense than other immigrants. Black people make up less than 9% of the undocumented population in the U.S. but make up 20% of immigrants facing deportation, that report stated.

While in custody they also tend to face harsher conditions. A 2020 study by three University of California academics found that Black persons in immigration detention centers were six times as likely to undergo solitary confinement as other immigrants.

In October 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy organizations filed a complaint against immigration authorities at a correctional center in Natchez, Mississippi, reporting that­ — in an effort to force Cameroonian men to sign paperwork agreeing to their deportation — ICE agents pepper-sprayed, beat and strangled them. SPLC attorneys called this “tantamount to torture.”

But you don’t have to leave Florida to find repeated mistreatment of Black immigrants. A 2019 report by the SPLC about detention centers in South Florida cited “a disproportionate use of force and racial slurs directed at Black immigrants.”

The Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, in particular, is notorious for its brutality. Ernest Francois, 48, of Haiti was detained there this past summer. In September, attorneys for immigrant advocacy organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security about his mistreatment by staff in the facility.

Harassment and intimidation

The complaint stated that Francois had been subjected to “a pattern of abusive and unlawful conduct that includes targeted harassment and intimidation; racialized threats of death; and… solitary confinement. Of greatest concern, the facility’s director repeatedly… made veiled and racialized death threats, suggesting he would leave a noose in Mr. Francois’s cell.”

That same month, another complaint was filed on behalf of seven Black African individuals at Glades. One of them sent a desperate text message to an advocacy organization:

“Is there anyway I get help. I’m in the hole [solitary confinement]. We’ve all been sprayed… We haven’t taken a shower. Place[d] in the hole for no reason… We need help or transfer out of here.”

Two more complaints quickly followed as anti-Black violence continued at Glades. In the first, a Black immigrant identified by the initials “N.T.” was taken to an area where there are no cameras and pepper-sprayed directly in the eyes and then left in a restraint chair for three to four hours. In the second, two African immigrants reported “inadequate medical care, physical assault, extended periods of solitary confinement, discriminatory abuse and anti-Blackness during their detention at Glades.”

The scandalous scenes of Black refugees being run down by angry Border Patrol agents on horseback are only the tip of the iceberg. Black immigrants suffer discriminatory and violent treatment within our immigration system every day. This is a national disgrace.

The administration and Congress must re-imagine our immigration system, starting by immediately closing facilities like the Glades County Detention Center, where anti-Black violence runs rampant. The American people should not rest until they do.

Katie Blankenship is an attorney with the ACLU of Florida. Rebecca Talbot is Glades Lead at the Immigration Action Alliance.

This story was originally published November 10, 2021 12:32 PM.