For Some Black Immigrants, Life in Limbo

By: - September 27, 2017 12:00 am

Abraham Paulos was born in Sudan to Eritrean parents. Because of his past criminal convictions, Paulos, who lives in New York, is among the hundreds of thousands of black immigrants in the United States who are facing an uncertain future.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

NEW YORK — He was born in Sudan to Eritrean parents fleeing war, and came to this country back in ’81, when he was 9 months old. Abraham Paulos and his family eventually landed in Chicago, where he grew up learning that being a black refugee in America meant one thing only: You were black.

Family life was rough, and by the time he hit his teens, Paulos was homeless. He jumped a turnstile. He stole some library books.

Today those teenage convictions put Paulos, now 36, at risk of being deported to Eritrea, the country where he holds citizenship but which he has never visited.

Immigration experts say that black immigrants face more discrimination and scrutiny than other migrant groups. Many of the challenges they face intersect with the challenges of native-born African-Americans, from housing discrimination to disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system.

Often the communities where most black immigrants live, such as New York City, are heavily policed, which makes them vulnerable to immigration action, said Michelle Parris, an attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project.

“Local policing and practices drive many black immigrants into the criminal justice system for minor offenses,” Parris said. “That may trigger deportation proceedings and make it harder to fight deportation.”

“It’s an immigration issue. But it’s also a criminal justice issue.”

Nearly 9 percent of immigrants in the U.S. identify as black. But more than 1 in 5 immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds is black, according to a 2016 report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and New York University School of Law. These are people who may be undocumented or are in the country legally with a green card, or a work or family visa, or who are asylum-seekers or refugees like Paulos.

Sixteen percent of black immigrants are undocumented, a number that is growing, though it’s not clear why, according to BAJI, a national research, training and advocacy group.

“We’re worried,” said Patrice Lawrence, national advocacy and policy coordinator for the UndocuBlack Network, a multigenerational advocacy group for currently and formerly undocumented black immigrants located around the country. “[The Trump administration is] putting people’s hearts and minds in limbo. They’ve got a deportation machine geared up and ready to go.”

Highly Educated and Married

In the intensifying immigration debate, the face of the immigrant tends to be Latino, specifically, Mexican. But Paulos is part of a rapidly growing group of black immigrants whose numbers have nearly quadrupled since 1980, to 3.8 million. Most have citizenship, or are in this country legally, with green cards or work or family visas. Some came are here as refugees.

The largest populations of black immigrants are in New York and Florida, followed by Texas, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia and Massachusetts, according to data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

Black immigrants, particularly those from African countries, are more likely to be highly educated and to be married. They’re also likely to be poor, even though many of them work long hours.

The federal government tracks immigrants by country of origin, rather than race or ethnicity. Because of that, immigration experts tracking black immigrants look at data on immigrants from majority black countries, such as countries in sub-Saharan Africa and countries in the Caribbean, said Jie Zong of MPI, an independent, nonpartisan immigration studies think tank based out of Washington, D.C.

Among black immigrants in the country without legal documentation, a little more than half are from African countries; the rest are mainly from Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, Zong said. (These figures do not include people who have temporary protective status, such as Haitians, which likely would push the number higher.)

Whatever their country of origin, black immigrants are detained and deported at higher rates than other immigrant groups, and are more likely than other immigrants to be deported for criminal offenses even though there is no evidence that they commit crimes at greater rates than other immigrants, according to the BAJI report.

Black immigrants in the country without legal documentation are incarcerated at a rate higher than white immigrants without documentation though lower than Hispanics, according to a recent report by the libertarian Cato Institute based on data from the American Community Survey.

They are also more likely than other nonblack immigrant groups to be “removed” from the United States rather than “returned” to their home countries, a tougher penalty under immigration law.

This may be because most of the “returns” happen at the Mexico-U.S. border. Noncitizens caught crossing the border are usually “returned” when they are deported. People already living in the U.S. are not eligible to be returned, but are “removed,” and that can come with greater penalties that can make it nearly impossible for them to ever come back.

(The U.S. government does not use the term “deportation.” Rather, it classifies deportees as “returns” or “removals.”)

The great majority of black immigrants either have visas or green cards, and tend to fight their deportation cases and therefore lose the eligibility to be “returned” voluntarily, which is why they are “removed,” said Paulos, who is the communications director for BAJI.

In recent years, the U.S. government has stepped up the number of people it removes from the country. It has also greatly expanded the definition of crimes that make noncitizens eligible for deportation.

But technically people with no legal documentation who entered the country after January 2014 are considered a high priority for criminal deportation, even if they have committed no other offense. Further complicating matters: what constitutes a “criminal alien” is not defined in U.S. immigration law or regulations, and is used broadly, according to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Black immigrants who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — the federal program that allows people who came to the United States illegally as children to work in the U.S. for a two-year renewable period — are less likely than other immigrants to apply, according to BAJI.

While there is no data on how many black immigrants applied for DACA relief, less than 2 percent of the first wave of DACA recipients were from majority black countries.

According to the MPI, African immigrants accounted for only 3 percent of the 1.2 million immigrants who were DACA eligible, while Caribbean immigrants accounted for 2 percent of that pool. In comparison, Mexican immigrants accounted for more than three-quarters of DACA approvals and two-thirds of the DACA eligible pool.

Living in Fear

Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood is home to one of the country’s largest black immigrant populations, especially those hailing from the Caribbean, Haiti and Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad. Here, you can easily find jerk chicken and oxtail stew, or beauty salons that boast of doing hair both Dominican and Haitian style.

Many are naturalized citizens, and many are not, some within the same families. And that used to not be such a big deal, but these days, locals say, things have changed.

And though New York is a so-called sanctuary city, where officials do not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in detaining undocumented people for deportation, folks fret.

At the local bodegas, parents are afraid to use their government-issued WIC cards to feed their children, for fear of drawing attention to themselves. Parents withdraw mounds of cash from the bank, rather than pay for anything electronically. Landlords looking to take advantage of the city’s gentrification craze tell tenants that they’ll report them to immigration officials if they don’t move.

After President Donald Trump was elected, school kids joked about being kicked out of the country, said Drew Goodman, an American citizen who works for the New York Department of Education and volunteers as a basketball coach in Flatbush. But beneath the joking, he said, was real fear.

“No one’s checking for your papers in Flatbush,” Goodman said. “But you have all these false rumors about how ICE is rounding people up.”

Meanwhile up in Harlem, the law center at the African Services Committee, a social services organization for immigrants, is seeing an influx of immigrants facing deportation because of past crimes, said Mauricio Norona, a staff attorney there.

In the past, you’d have to have committed a serious crime to be eligible for deportation, Norona said. But now any contact with the police, even if it’s just an arrest, can get immigrants funneled into the deportation pipeline.

And often that means deporting noncitizens who have been in the country for decades, Norona said.

Which is the situation that Paulos finds himself in today, facing possible deportation for a crime he committed nearly 20 years ago.

In 2010, he had another brush with the law. He was walking home from his bartending gig in Brooklyn in the early morning hours when police grabbed him and interrogated him, he said. There had been a robbery. The victim identified him as one of three assailants.

Paulos was charged with four felonies and two misdemeanors and was shipped to jail at Rikers Island. Four days later, after his friends posted bail, Paulos was released. He passed ICE officials in the parking lot as he headed home. (Charges were later dropped.)

His white friends were outraged, and urged him to take his story public. But Paulos refused. The last thing he wanted, he said, was to attract unwanted attention from immigration officials.

But here’s the catch: Even if he were deported, the Eritrean government does not accept nationals who’ve been deported back into the country. Which means that Paulos is a man without a country, living life in limbo.

“This is how you know we are living in an alternative universe,” he said. “The fact that I don’t have a country works out for me.”

For now, he added. 

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.