“The deportation rate for undocumented black immigrants is because we are both black and undocumented simultaneously.”

The undocumented Black community is disproportionately detained and deported. And still, discussions of immigration reform and undocumented youth generally revolve around Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America. To bring more visibility to the diversity of the undocumented student experience, I interviewed a recent college graduate from Connecticut—a young woman who is undocumented and Black. Her perspective helps shatter a common perception of U.S. immigration and disrupt the familiar narrative.

Melinda D. Anderson: In many accounts of the young undocumented immigrant, the protagonist is often a Latino youth from Mexico or Central America, whose family came to the U.S. to escape extreme poverty and violence in their home countries. Talk about how this dominant narrative can render the black and non-Latino immigrant experience invisible—absent from discussion and attention.

Ainslya Charlton: One concrete example is that the Black Alliance for Just Immigration(BAJI) found that black immigrants are being detained and deported at five times the rate of our proportion in the undocumented community. Many people do not realize that the immigration system is just as subject to anti-blackness as other government [systems] that are associated with enforcing structural racism. Resources that are donated with the intent to help undocumented immigrants are often targeted towards organizations that focus their efforts on Latino communities. This creates conditions where some of the only resources that are available for undocumented immigrants also have ethnicity restrictions that leave many that do not fit that mold behind.

Still yet, many of the anti-deportation protests are centered on Latinos that do not identify with an African descent. And microaggressions often happen within the immigrant-rights movement. Afro-Latinos and others are often dismissed when we make requests for translations into languages other than Spanish—such as Garifuna, French, and Portuguese. I once saw a flyer posted on Facebook for an action that was called “A Day Without Latinos” that was organized in response to an anti-immigrant bill. When I pointed out that there were people from other ethnicities that were also undocumented in that state [Wisconsin] and would also be impacted by that bill, people commented on my post by saying that if I had an issue with the way that the action was advertised, I should go out and protest instead of sitting at home. Since the face of the immigrant-rights movement does not include people like me, the assumption was that I wasn’t doing any work within the movement as an individual who identifies as an undocumented black woman … We have to advocate for ourselves and the issues that disproportionately impact us [in activist and political circles] where immigration is openly understood as a Latino issue.

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About 50 million students attend U.S. public elementary and secondary schools. And according to data, 7 percent have at least one undocumented parent. That’s 3.5 million children. What I found this week in writing about immigration raids and deportation scares is that the emotional and educational impact is staggering. Current immigration policy is shattering families and leaving U.S.-born children parentless, as they watch one or both parents deported. Immigration policy is education policy.

A CNN feature in 2013 profiled teen siblings in Florida orphaned after their father was deported while they were at school. It was the second time the children, who are both legal residents, lost a parent to deportation—their mother was returned to Nicaragua in 2008. “Constantly worrying that their parents will be snatched away, children often feel angry, helpless, and trapped,” CNN’s Cindy Y. Rodriguez and Adriana Hauser wrote. A study by the advocacy organization Human Impact Partners published the same year, “Family Unity, Family Health,” found that the deportation scares take a mental and physical toll on undocumented immigrants’ children. Researchers linked the threat of detention and deportation to poorer educational outcomes, concluding: “U.S.-citizen children who live in families under threat of detention or deportation will finish fewer years of school and face challenges focusing on their studies.”

This research provides important insight given the current round of federal raids triggering deep-seated fears in the Hispanic community. As immigration agents target adults with school-age children in several states, even those exempt from the sanctions are anxious and scared.

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(Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock)



I took Latin in high school. This basically qualifies me to read prescription abbreviations. In retrospect I wish I had studied French or Spanish. I don’t take excessive pride in the fact that I only speak English – I find it limiting and somewhat stifling. In a country as diverse as the U.S., being bilingual is something to treasure rather than discard or reject. And when the push for children to learn English in schools supplants their first language, culture and heritage, we have to ask whether something critical is lost.

Even as states struggle to reach a common definition of what it means to be an English language learner, the proportion of these students continues to rise—and with it, the temperature of debate surrounding the purpose and goals of bilingual education. It remains an unsettled issue that continues to challenge America’s self-image as welcoming and inclusive: The value of linguistic assimilation is pitted against the values of a culturally diverse nation of immigrants, leaving education systems and its students caught in political crosshairs. The divide is exacerbated by financially strapped schools with skyrocketing numbers of English learners—meeting all of the mandates for their education can be expensive—and the national discourse on immigration, which saw the 2016 presidential contender Donald Trump advise his competitor Jeb Bush to “really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Today, schools are still twisting in the wind of politics, with 31 states passing laws naming English the official language over the last two centuries and voters in CaliforniaArizona, and Massachusetts approving ballot measures in recent decades that replace bilingual education with English-only policies. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of educators are promoting the cultivation of bilingualism to support the social and emotional needs of English language learners.

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