Immigration & the Black Lives Matter Protests, with Kavitha Rajagopalan

Jul 15, 2020

How have conversations in the immigration rights community shifted since this round of Black Lives Matters protests started? In this new environment, what are some tangible policy changes a more progressive administration could enact in the United States? Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan offers a nuanced perspective on the many connections between immigration and systemic racism in the United States.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I'm speaking with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan. Kavitha is also a newsletter editor at City University of New York's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Her articles have appeared on CNN and in The New York Times, The Nation, and in many other publications. She is author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West.

Kavitha and I have done several podcasts over the last two years. You can find them all at Today we will be looking at migration in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19. We will discuss some connections and differences between immigrant rights and anti-racism conversations and lots of other things.

Kavitha, it's great to speak with you today.

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Great to be back. Thank you so much for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: We have not spoken since the pandemic started in March. We haven't spoken since the murder of George Floyd in late May. I would like to start with some of the anti-racism protests, some of the Black Lives Matter protests, and see how that connects to immigration conversations. Just to get started, how have you seen the conversation around immigration change since this round of Black Lives Matter protests started in late May and early June, or have you seen the conversation change?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think the immigration justice and immigrant rights movement has been building solidarity for a long time with Black Lives Matter, and there have been previous statements after 2016, from 2018, and then on through the many onslaughts, both on black Americans' rights and on immigrants' and asylum seekers' rights. There have been a lot of public statements and joint statements.

I think in the past the nexus work has largely been oriented around this question of the carceral system and how detention networks can also benefit from a lot of the reforms that are being proposed under police reform and criminal justice reform and eventually on up through abolitionist movements. I think what has happened over the last couple of years in that space has been a lot of advocacy and activism to shift away from this simple conversation of reforming an already broken, ineffective, and fundamentally violent system of carceral punishment and detention and shift toward abolition, both on the immigrant justice side and in Black Lives Matter.

Since the protests started at the end of May and early June, for the first couple of weeks what I saw playing out was this very powerful conversation about who should be the leaders and who should be speaking on these topics of solidarity from across the board. Early on there were a lot of questions about how other people from outside the Black Lives Matter movement—maybe immigrant rights activists, but also people who speak generally about immigration issues, about identity issues, and about other cultures and other communities—should be standing in solidarity, and who should be speaking, and who should be taking up space.

The most important thing that came out of that conversation was the general realization that this is a profound, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-an-era, once-in-a-generation moment in black history. Although we are all processing our own space, our own place in this movement and in this hierarchy, this very racialized, almost clear caste system that we have in the United States—and I say this as a person who has benefited from caste supremacy in my own home country of India. The fact of the matter is that caste supremacy is just one of the many ways across the world that certain people with privilege have been prioritized and given entrance into the United States. That also orients itself to the types of relationships that we see in immigrant communities here and the avenues for, or lack of, solidarity between immigrants here in the United States and with the more activist movements about immigrant justice and Black Lives Matter.

I think what we are realizing is that now is maybe the moment to stand aside and allow people who have been doing this work for many, many years, who are organizing and have been effective in shifting the conversation away from ineffective attempts at reform toward actual abolition and defunding. Those are also nuanced conversations, so I think those are playing out.

At the same time, I think what has happened is this very challenging shift away from what we see as a very clear onslaught under this current administration against immigrant rights that has been so rapid and so constant and from so many different sides—refugee rights, asylum seeker rights, violent abuses in detention, family separation, and these migrant protection protocols that essentially created these concentration camps across the Southern U.S. border onward to the disintegration and eradication, basically the stepping back of a basic immigrant rights infrastructure for all levels of immigrants here in the United States. That has been a very difficult thing to figure out how to convey, how to communicate, and how to build public support for.

The onslaught has been from so many different directions and at so many different levels that the message has become very murky. People who write and speak regularly about immigration are often getting things wrong. The details are so nuanced. Some of the statements are executive orders that don't have any bearing; some of the policies are being argued progressively at various levels of the justice system, in various courts; and there are across-the-board court orders that are blocking certain of these more aggressive things, and then they are being overturned.

So the process is very murky, and the messaging has gotten very confusing. I think that is one of the bigger challenges in immigration issues at this point going forward. I think there is a very clear nexus point between detention activism and carceral justice activism and the defund/prison abolition and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) movement. But on these other issues it's difficult to create a kind of cohesive statement around it, and we're seeing that difficulty play out now.

ALEX WOODSON: I think adding to that also is that we say "immigrant" communities, but there are many different types of immigrant communities—geographically, different socioeconomic areas that the immigrants come from. When you think about all these different immigrant communities—South Asian, Latin American, even European and African—how do you see them reacting differently to something like the Black Lives Matter protests? Are some more interested than others in getting involved? Is it an individual choice? When you look at who has come together in these protests and these conversations what do you see as far as these different groups of immigrants?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: What is challenging, like you say, about the immigration communities is that across the world political polarization is an issue, oppression is a global issue, hierarchies of oppression are global issues.

I can speak personally to the South Asian community. Indian immigrant communities are the second-largest foreign-born population in the country, and we are not what we used to be. I think the post-1965 Indian immigrants who came here were largely upper caste, primarily Brahmin, and were professional. Many people tell stories of arriving at airports and being given a Green Card on arrival. The experience of the earlier generation of professional Indian immigrants is not what is reflected in the population today.

For example, I think the largest ever mass deportation over the southern U.S. border was about 300 Indian immigrants who were trying to cross over the border. We know that the migration journey from India is now very, very complicated. It's vast. We're seeing massive spikes as India becomes politically unstable—we have spoken about this before—and as human rights abuses become much more ingrained and much more rapid and much more widespread in Indian society. We have seen massive amounts of asylum-seekers from India all over the world, and we know that these immigration pathways and these immigration journeys are global. So someone may try out the Gulf for a little while, they may try out Malaysia or Indonesia for a little bit, and then ultimately make their way across the ocean to Europe or to the United States. There is no single immigrant destination for many of these immigrant communities. At the same time, undocumentedness—working-class immigration—is on the rise.

What we see also in immigrant communities, specifically in the South Asian community but also in Latin American communities, is that these hierarchies of oppression are being reproduced here and are being reinforced here by U.S. policy that erases the diversity of our communities and also creates this false narrative that a lot of people in a lot of the immigrant communities in the interest of self-preservation buy into these false narratives about who is the "good" immigrant and who is the "bad" immigrant and who deserves to be here and who is breaking the rules and who is following the rules in this meritocracy conversation. We see this play out in every aspect of American life.

For example, even if we talk about school justice or environmental justice or labor justice or labor rights or political voter registration or even coalition-building ahead of the upcoming election, all across the board you see these kinds of false narratives being reproduced all over the place. For example, we know that there has been an ongoing conversation since the beginning of June about how Asian Americans specifically, who are experiencing a spike in xenophobic violence and hate crimes and racism, can collaborate and be in solidarity with black Americans. This is very challenging because anti-blackness and racism are extremely ingrained.

I have been doing work around school justice and anti-racism in schools myself, and the other day a black mom whose son goes to a citywide Gifted and Talented School here in New York City was telling me that he was surrounded by Chinese American students who were taunting him and calling him racist names, at the same time that we know that Chinese Americans in New York have experienced unprecedented hate crimes and racist attacks. It's a complicated narrative.

I think what's happening now is that there is a lot of trauma that is being unleashed, and people's trauma responses are bizarre. People like to protect themselves and put themselves in a position of safety. That can further fracture divisions in our communities.

But more than that, we need to speak to the fact that there is active U.S. policy that exacerbates, cements, and deepens these hierarchies of oppression in our communities. For example, there are extremely high rates of trafficking in immigrant communities, there are extremely high rates of predatory lending, of exploitative immigration lawyers and services, unfair housing rules, exploitative laws in general, and, of course, silencing of domestic violence. There are a lot of these challenges in these communities.

I think what is often overlooked in a lot of the coverage and public conversation about this particular moment is the fact that so many immigrants in the United States are black immigrants. In New York City alone the latest data shows that about 30 percent of black New Yorkers are foreign born, are immigrants, and this doesn't even account for the children of immigrants, the children of refugees, and the populations that are American citizens who are from colonially occupied or U.S.-controlled territories, like Puerto Rico.

Obviously, these conversations are complicated. As of the latest count, I think there are more than 4.2 million black immigrants in the United States from African countries, from Afro-Latinx populations, from the Caribbean, and also from the Pacific Islands and from Asia, and from all over the world.

We know from years of documentation that black immigrants in all countries around the world suffer from tremendous amounts of anti-blackness. We have heard testimonies; we have seen studies conducted on anti-black hate crimes in India, for example, and in various parts of Asia, and in Russia, and of course in the European Union itself; and well-documented examples of anti-black racism unleashed toward immigrants in the United States, Canada, and in the United Kingdom. We have known about this for decades.

We know that many of the black African immigrants who are here, because it is so difficult for African immigrants to receive an immigration visa to come to the United States, tend to be more privileged and of a professional background and higher education standards and have more resources from their home countries, unless you're talking about resettled refugee populations, which accounts for such a small percentage of the immigrant communities here in the United States. But black immigrants have all said across the board that they have a harder time finding jobs that match their skills, their education, and their qualifications. All of this orients itself to anti-black racism in the United States. We know for a fact that this is across the board.

So in all communities you have people speaking on behalf of immigrant communities. In academia and in the media all of the high-status people who represent immigrant communities are all more likely to be people with privileged backgrounds. So the conversation tends to get skewed in that way.

For example, if you look at the number of Asian Americans or South Asian Americans who are running for political office, most of these folks are fairly well-off, are from highly educated backgrounds, are upper caste, are most likely Brahmin, and this makes overall policy changing, policy conversations, or lobbying efforts to address the concerns of the most vulnerable and the most hurt and the most injured members of our community very difficult to achieve.

If the voices who are doing actual policymaking and legislating on behalf of a certain community or are from a certain community are not aware of these issues, then you have challenges, which is part of the reason why it's so powerful to see progressive women legislators like Pramila Jayapal, who is very aware of the needs of the most vulnerable—undocumented South Asians and LGBTQ South Asians—and, of course, people like Ilhan Omar, who has a refugee background herself, and Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian.

But again, this is all more than just identity issues. I think it's very easy in this country—I have been invited, for example, again and again to see myself as a victim of discrimination, and yet I am an Indian American. My parents are Brahmin, highly educated people, very privileged, and I am married to a black man. If anything, my experience in observing his life experiences and being in this lifelong conversation with him and seeing the experiences of my children in this country have made it very, very clear to me that our experiences are very different.

I did have discrimination and prejudice leveled against me as a child—I grew up in North Carolina—but I didn't feel it. I didn't perceive it because it wasn't about me. If somebody called me Chinese or said, "Oh, you're Indian," it didn't affect me because I thought to myself: Oh, who are these people? They don't really know who we are, and they're just ignorant. It didn't affect me.

Our understanding of our role as immigrants in the Black Lives Matter movement can't be based on our own feelings of persecution. This is not to discount the fact that there are many people who are deeply persecuted here by ourselves, by people within our own communities, and by the policies in this country, but we can't find the common ground with the Black Lives Matter movement on those grounds.

That's why I think it has been so powerful to see the Black Lives Matter movement speak to this pervasive structural system-wide institutionalized racism and how it functions in all levels of society. I think perhaps the immigrant rights movement can speak to that and can understand that a little bit more.

There is a conversation to be had about who should be speaking for and with any given community. This is a challenge. Obviously, the people who have platform and privilege should use that platform and privilege to speak and to continue learning, but unfortunately that does tend to recreate systems of oppression and erasure.

This is very challenging. In a democracy like ours that isn't a direct democracy, but is a representative democracy, how do we actually address through policy, through coalition-building, what needs to be done? I think if anything these uprisings show us that this system has broken down. Our policy-making apparatus and our legal justice system not only do not speak to the actual gaps and violence and injustice in our society because of years of gerrymandering and voter suppression, because of these longstanding dynamics of prioritizing and giving resources to certain members of our society at the expense of the vast majority. I think all of these things make it very clear now that our democracy needs to be revisited and that it's not necessarily functioning.

As a result, in the middle of a global pandemic that has disproportionately taken the lives of undocumented, of poor, of immigrant, of black Americans, and people who are working on the frontlines as essential workers, who tend to live in overcrowded conditions, these are the more vulnerable populations. As a result, it can mean a virus does not care what race you are, but it spreads through communities and networks. The fact that these are the communities that are now saying, "The only way that we can be heard is to take to the streets," is I think a powerful statement about where we are and what we need to reconcile with and what needs to come next.

I don't know that everyone on the ground can be asked to tell us what comes next. That's for the rest of us to maybe think through a little bit. But they're basically saying: "We've done over five years of movement building, of shifting the conversation around how we understand carceral justice and carceral systems, and now it's time for you guys to figure out what comes next." That is where the challenge comes in.

There will always be an effort from the electoral politics point of view to build coalitions between positions that can be seen as irreconcilable. That is the nature of electoral politics, and that is where we are today, and that becomes very challenging.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to keep going with that point. Looking ahead, somewhat hopefully, we have a big election coming up in November. We could have a change in administration. When President Trump came into office, he undid a lot of what Barack Obama did. I think a goal for a President Biden would be to undo some of the Trump administration policies surrounding immigration and specifically surrounding racism and things like that. When you look ahead to a possible change in administration, what are some policies, some tangible pieces of legislation that could be enacted to undo some of what has been happening over the last four years?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: In immigration conversations we have to go back further. Immigration has been under attack—we have been trying for 20 years now to try to get any kind of reasonable comprehensive immigration reform. Right now people are not aware of how long it takes to get a Green Card, how expensive it is, how truly toxic the process is, and how hard people have to struggle. There is no "good" immigration anymore. There is no "good" immigrant and no "bad" immigrant; everyone is struggling.

I think there are too many visa categories. There are too many different ways of dividing people. The mere fact that today if a highly skilled immigrant comes here—and, of course, there has been a decline in the number of high-skilled H-1B visas that are being given out—this person's spouse, even if that person is also highly skilled, may not work in the United States. There are so many ways of recreating all these barriers. At the same time, you have this public charge.

One of the biggest challenges is that this all comes down to what we were talking about before, the fact that we are creating this idea that immigration reform is the same for all immigrants and that we're trying to speak to different degrees: we're trying to speak to asylum, we're trying to speak to refugee resettlement, and we're trying to speak to grotesque, obvious, unacceptable human rights abuses of asylum seekers, of immigrants in detention, of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

At the same time, we're trying to speak to these kinds of bureaucratic dysfunctions. What does it take to actually get a visa to the United States? Who do you have to pay? How do you do it? How do you come here? How do you then build a life for yourself? If you come as a student, as a non-immigrant, how do you then transition to long-term immigration? Why do we need to have so many short-term temporary non-immigrant status positions?

This goes back I think to the Black Lives Matter movement. In immigration circles, in immigrant rights, immigration advocacy, and immigration scholarship, in general circles that think about immigration, there is this phrase, "The border is everywhere." I think that can be applied to how we understand what's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, where they're showing us that racism is everywhere. The border between who deserves and is afforded justice, opportunity, and safety in this country is everywhere.

For example, we will talk about gentrification in Brooklyn, where I live. Someone will say, "Well, this neighborhood is gentrifying," but we also understand that the border between the haves and have-nots can exist within a single building, within a single block. That makes these conversations harder to have.

One of the things we can talk about with immigration reform is the fact that we can maybe break it up. Maybe the next administration doesn't have to push for comprehensive immigration reform. Maybe that has been a failure.

Maybe what we also have to learn from previous administrations is that abuses against immigrants, human rights abuses in the name of border security and of protection, have been rolled out under both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past. So maybe the next administration has to take an honest reckoning, and if the next president is Biden, then maybe it's very important for him to be able to openly acknowledge what failures and mistakes were made under the Obama administration toward immigration policy in the interest of having a coalition or agreement or bipartisanship or some sort of partnership with people whose positions we now can see are plainly xenophobic, who don't support immigration at all.

I think any illusion that there was a reasonable policy position behind immigration security or border security has all been exploded. This administration has made it very clear that this has always been a xenophobic experiment, an effort to reduce the foreign-born population in the United States and to reduce the number of immigrants who are allowed to legally enter the United States. Now that we know this, maybe we don't have to use the same strategies as in the past around immigration.

To my mind, I think the first and foremost thing we have to do is address the vast widespread human rights abuse toward immigrant punishment and immigration law enforcement across the country in all areas that are along the border. In any city where you have massive amounts of immigrant populations we have to walk back the hostility toward sanctuary laws, we have to offer a path to citizenship for everyone, and they have to clear across-the-board steps, and there can't be weird, punitive steps like somebody has to go back to the line and wait for 10 years to apply for citizenship. That does not make sense. That's a ridiculous thing to ask of people who have already endured decades of marginality. If somebody has been here for 30 years, then they should be able to just apply for citizenship. Why does the path to citizenship have to be so lengthy, so costly, and so traumatic? So, that needs to happen.

The second major thing that needs to happen is we need to get rid of the bureaucratic dysfunction. We need to make it very clear that there doesn't need to be so many different visa categories. If someone comes, there has to be a clear process that if you come here as an au pair, as a student, and you want to transition to a longer-term process, how do you do that without having to pay thousands of dollars and without having to leave the country or even overstay a visa or cross illegally? Nobody wants to be an illegal immigrant. Nobody wants to be unauthorized. Nobody wants to live with that level of fear and stress. Nobody wants to not be able to buy property or seek medical care.

We see this play out again and again with the uprisings and with COVID-19. Many cities across the country have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants will be treated if they arrive, but after many years of being criminalized and attacked—we have seen instances where ICE detention agents have gone into hospitals and arrested people who have sought medical care—people are being forced into making these untenable decisions. So that needs to be addressed.

Also, we have to learn from the Black Lives Matter movement. What I'm seeing is very hopeful, that all elected officials or all candidates on the Democratic side do seem to be hiring and listening to people from more vulnerable communities and from activist backgrounds. I think everybody has their role to play. I don't necessarily see that activists should be the only people informing policy, but I do think we have a lot to learn from listening to them.

This is a powerful moment, a lesson for all of us who have said what can and cannot be done. In a space of five years Black Lives Matter has completely shifted the way the United States understands the prison system and police and what the role of police should be, things that were taken as fact and just accepted as "This is the way that it has to be; we have to spend $6 billion on police in New York City." I think it has been a powerful lesson to us that we should be listening to activist movements that have been working on these issues for a long time and have the evidence.

I think in our governance systems we maybe need to have a closer conversation about who should be informing policymaking and legislation and who should then sponsor legislation and how. It can't obviously all be based on identity; a person's identity does not speak to their politics. But there should be conversations about representing the truth or realities on the ground without tokenism. This is where we are now.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned the progress that Black Lives Matter has made over the last five years. I was hoping you could expand on that a little bit. What specifically did they do in your mind that has made the movement so successful, and what can people in the immigrant rights communities take away from that?

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: The immigrant rights communities have been working so hard and for so long. I think the main challenge for the immigrant rights communities is invisibility. People don't understand all of the different laws. They don't understand all of the different visa categories. So it's easy to fall into simplistic narratives, and even very, very knowledgeable writers—and I'll include myself in this—fall back into these narratives to be able to convey storylines that are easy to digest.

For example, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) storyline was so easy to sell to a lot of people, but even the main narrative that was ultimately carried through wasn't necessarily true. There are so many aspects of the DACA recipient experience that are different and that are nuanced depending on where you came from and how you got here. There is this narrative that this is the only country they have ever known. That's not true for many DACA recipients, nor should it be.

So I think there is this question about nationality and citizenship and what does it mean to belong that should be somehow decoupled from access and rights. People should not be denied basic rights and access because of an accident of birth. I think that should be accepted across the board.

But I think what has been powerful about the Black Lives Matter movement is that at the same time—I think I have heard several activists say, "We can walk and chew gum at the same time"—they have been clear and focused about police brutality, "Say her name," "defund," all the way to "abolish," which we should be very clear that those are two completely different positions, defund police and abolish police, and those are in conversation with each other. It looks like people are listening but aren't necessarily in full agreement, and I don't think we as a society have to pick a side if we don't know. We can just listen and learn and ultimately hope that in the end the move will be less about getting rid of something and more about giving back to.

One of the positions I have heard a lot about—and I think this is also true of immigration issues—is we can't talk about "defund" without talking about "reinvest." A very high-profile person who has spoken a lot about police reform and criminal justice work—I'm blanking on the name—said ultimately the only real investment that we've seen over many decades in black communities across the country has been in police and in punitive systems. If you take that funding away, then there has to be an equal commitment to investing in these communities.

I think the same needs to be said for immigration reform. If we get rid of investment in border security, in law enforcement, and in ICE, what are we doing to actually invest in immigrant communities? We know, for example, even in refugee rights that most refugees rely on mutual-aid societies and on cooperatives and on each other to get a start. But in the end, we're also asking many refugees to buoy up and revitalize Rust Belt cities and towns all over the country. If you're asking immigrants to revitalize your country and to fill skill gaps and fill jobs that can't be filled by native-born populations, how else do you invest in these populations? How else do you invest in the native population so that these skill sets can be acquired by people who were born here, regardless of where their family members or their parents were born?

I think all conversation about removing a punitive system—this is the main lesson, and I think immigrant activists are already doing this. It's just a less-understood movement and a less widely supported movement because people obviously don't understand immigration that much in the country. But they're already doing this, which is that if you want to get rid of all of this money and investment in these punitive systems—in detention, in border patrol, in ICE, in customs, and there are so many different mechanisms for law enforcement that are against immigrants or punishing immigrants—then where else are we going to take that money and invest to dismantle these barriers between safety and opportunity for immigrants around the country?

ALEX WOODSON: Kavitha, thank you so much. This has been terrific.

KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for having me. A pleasure as always.

ALEX WOODSON: Of course.

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