Black History Month is an important time to consider the deep roots of racism and inequality in the United States and to highlight the power of the long — and continuing — struggles for civil rights and freedom. But seldom do we consider how the U.S. treatment of immigrants is part of this story. While American mythology paints the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has tended to lionize and welcome mostly White immigrants.
The erasure of Black immigrants from our history has allowed a whitewashed version of this history to endure. This has enabled U.S. officials to treat Black immigrants from Africa and the Americas as illegitimate — as temporary workers rather than permanent immigrants, as economic migrants rather than asylum seekers or as people whose very presence has been criminalized.
Policies of inclusion — like the Diversity Visa lottery — are rare but significant because they cut against such long-standing erasure and exclusion. They also point to how the struggles for immigrant rights and for Black freedom are interconnected.
While the 19th century is often remembered for the migration of English, German and Irish people to the United States, Cape Verdeans were the first major community of Americans of African descent to voluntarily immigrate. In the early 20th century, Black immigrants — mostly from British Caribbean colonies — began coming to the United States in significant numbers, settling in New York, Miami, Boston and elsewhere.
By 1930, some 100,000 West Indian immigrants resided in the United States. Although their numbers were relatively small, their presence shaped neighborhoods and communities in important ways. Some were important Black nationalist and Pan-African leaders, artists, writers and thinkers, leaving an indelible mark on African American cultures. Even as the United States worked to curtail nearly all immigration in the 1920s, small numbers of African students came to American colleges and universities to study. Ghana’s independence leader Kwame Nkrumah and Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe both attended Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania, for example. African students helped shape conversations about liberation on Black college campuses before returning home to build new nations.
World War II accelerated the arrivals of West Indians because the United States recruited guest workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados and elsewhere. With the nation mobilized for war, they came to replace American workers headed abroad to fight, especially in agriculture. They faced much the same discrimination and exploitation as African Americans, particularly in the Jim Crow South, but with the added wrinkle that they could be deported. The United States conceived of these migrants as temporary, disposable workers rather than immigrants to be incorporated permanently into American society. After the war, the United States extended the guest worker programs, even as it moved to reduce permanent immigration from Caribbean British colonies.
As the Black civil rights movement began to win key gains through federal legislation in the 1960s, policymakers also addressed what liberals viewed as an outdated and discriminatory immigration system. Ending racist national-origin quotas, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act formally opened immigration opportunities to the world beyond Northern and Western Europe.
The system’s new preference for professionals attracted highly trained workers and students from Asia and Africa, while new restrictions imposed limits on immigration from the Americas. But assumptions about who could be a legitimate immigrant, shaped by histories of racial exclusion, remained lodged in place.
The treatment of Haitian immigrants in the decades after the passage of the 1965 law provided a key example. In the early 1970s, thousands fled François Duvalier’s oppressive regime. The United States supported Duvalier for Cold War reasons and therefore rejected the asylum claims of these Haitians, whom it deemed “economic migrants” rather than refugees. Treating Haitians’ asylum claims as illegitimate reflected both Cold War imperatives and racist assumptions about who should be welcomed.
In the late 1970s, the Carter administration — despite its emphasis on human rights in foreign policy — began detaining arriving Haitians and sought to return them to danger in Haiti. Meanwhile, the United States had long welcomed Cubans, who were mostly White and fleeing a communist regime. Even a federal judge pointed to the disparity and agreed that the Carter administration’s handling of these claims was discriminatory and driven by anti-Black racism: “This case involves thousands of black Haitian nationals,” Judge James Lawrence King’s opinion began, “the brutality of their government, and the prejudice of ours.”
“The Statue of Liberty is a beckon [sic] of welcome to immigrants, white, but a Statue of limitation to Haitians, black,” civil rights leader Jesse Jackson summarized in the early 1980s.
The passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 aimed to make refugee admissions and asylum more orderly and uniform and dropped ideological language about fleeing communism from the definition of the term. And yet, successive administrations from both parties continued turning away Haitians and placing those who arrived in the United States in detention. Ronald Reagan’s administration interdicted their boats and returned people to Haiti without hearing their asylum claims. George H.W. Bush’s administration detained Haitians at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay to prevent their arrival in the United States, and Bill Clinton’s administration continued the policy.
Two important channels for Black immigration emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as the Cold War waned. The United States began resettling refugees from African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and later Liberia. And with the Immigration Act of 1990, the United States created opportunities for voluntary immigration from Africa. In addition to enabling more immigration of highly trained professionals, the act launched the Diversity Visa lottery.
Soon, thousands of people without existing ties to the United States were able to apply for immigration status through an annual lottery. In all, half a million African immigrants have come through the lottery program. Because of the immigration system’s reliance on family ties — which until the 1990s had helped exclude African immigrants — the lottery has allowed family members to join lottery winners and establish new communities. The program remains a rare example of gatekeepers creating opportunities for Black immigration, at least in terms of offering formal status.
Nearly simultaneously, however, an uptick in anti-immigrant politics fueled the passage of restrictionist laws at the state and federal level in the 1990s, trends exacerbated by the post-9/11 reorganization of the immigration bureaucracy. Policies of immigrant detention that had been developed to incarcerate Haitian asylum seekers were expanded and broadened. The resulting soaring rates of immigration detention, deportation and criminalization have hurt all immigrant communities — but disproportionately harmed Black immigrants.
Because of racism in the criminal legal system and spatial segregation, Black immigrants are more likely than other groups to have contact with law enforcement. Those encounters have sometimes been deadly, as with the police killing of Amadou Diallo (1999), Patrick Dorismond (1999), Ousmane Zongo (2003), Akai Gurley (2014), Botham Jean (2018) and Patrick Lyoya (2022), among others. Police encounters and entanglements with the criminal system can also lead to deportation, even when people are deeply rooted in the United States.
Policymakers have also been slow to designate temporary protected status (TPS) for Black immigrants, for example to protect those from Haiti and Cameroon being deported back to danger. Even when these designations have been made, advocates point out that TPS is not the same as permanent status, continuing a long pattern of seeing Black immigrants as not fully belonging.
That Black immigrants have so frequently been treated as provisional Americans (at best) speaks to the enduring conditions placed on Black American citizenship. The energy expended to expel Haitian asylum seekers without process, decade after decade, through to the present, under presidents from both parties, shows a zealous commitment to excluding Black immigrants. White European immigrants and their descendants are often recognized as the inheritors of a purported “nation of immigrants,” while Black Americans and others are denied both belonging and liberation. Restoring Black immigration to the stories we tell about both Black history and immigration policy reveals a shared pattern of racist exclusion that we have to face if we hope to dismantle it.