(Illustration by Hal Marie Saga)

L.A.’s Black immigrants reframe cultural narratives and reclaim their stories

“There are no monolithic Black experiences,” Black feminist author bell hooks once wrote. But, in discussions around U.S. immigration, Black immigrants are often left out of the narrative. Los Angeles is one of the fastest-growing hubs for Black immigrants on the West Coast, most especially immigrants from the Caribbean. However, the reality of anti-Black racism creates very real consequences for both Black Americans and Black immigrants with disparities in health, housing and immigration. In the fight for racial justice, immigration also needs to be part of the conversation.  

According to Pew Research Center, 1 in 10 Black Americans are immigrants. In 2019, the Black immigrant population reached 4.6 million, a 475% increase over the past 40 years. Moreover, the number of Black immigrants is projected to reach 9.6 million by 2060. Los Angeles’s Black  immigrant population is also booming. Ten percent of the nation’s Black immigrants live on the West Coast, with 200,000 living in California and more than 74,000 in Los Angeles County. Nearly 40% of all the county’s Black immigrants hail from Nigeria, Belize and Ethiopia.

Calls for more restrictive federal immigration policies permeate the mainstream news cycle amidst growing xenophobic rhetoric by more U.S. lawmakers. Nevertheless, Black immigrants are here, and they’re an integral part of Los Angeles communities’ social fabric.

A Black woman wearing a face mask stands in from of U.S. Customs and Border Protection building with a Black power fist raised in the air.
UndocuBlack Network’s community engagement director Ronnie ___ at the 2022 Rally for TPS4Haiti in front of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Headquarters, Washington D.C. (Danyeli Rodriguez Del Orbe/UndocuBlack Network)

Fighting erasure

Dorothy McLeod, 83, came to Los Angeles in 1969. She said it took nearly a decade to find fellow Jamaicans in the area. Finding community was difficult but so was finding solidarity with other Americans. 

“I would be pleased that they know something about Jamaica. They would be so excited to tell me, ‘Oh, I know, your president is Bob Marley,’” explained McLeod. “And I would be incensed because you know it’s like somebody who almost insults you. I decided that rather than be angry, and maybe resentful, I should try to find a way to teach people about who we are.” McLeod said this fertilized the “seed” of the Jamaica Cultural Alliance (JCA), which she co-founded in 1997 and serves as executive director. 

A senior Black women thumbs the pages of a book.
Dorothy McLeod, executive director and co-founder of Jamaica Cultural Alliance, thumbs through a book of landscapes and slice-of-life pictures from Jamaica in her Los Angeles home on March 26, 2024.
A senior Black woman holds of book with scenes from Jamaica.
Dorothy McLeod, 83, immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica more than five decades ago. McLeod founded Jamaica Cultural Alliance to educate others on the real life of Jamaicans outside of stereotypes.

“Part of the project of white supremacy involves fundamental dehumanization, and caricature and stereotyping and reducing people in ways that distort their histories,” said Andrea Queeley, associate professor of anthropology and African and African Diaspora studies at Florida International University. Queeley teaches how white supremacy and colonialism distorts people’s lived experiences. “Showing the nuances and the textures and the different histories and trajectories of people who are racialized as Black, for me is a move.” 

Learning one’s history is a crucial part in dismantling white supremacy and is one way to bridge communities together. JCA, for instance, grew out of a need for representation and to diversify the understanding of Jamaican heritage through arts and education. Last June, the group hosted CARICON, an international celebration aimed at bringing together Caribbean writers to promote Caribbean heritage. 

Horace Alexander, JCA’s president, said community-building is a top priority. “We as JCA board members are here to build bridges, not to erect walls. And that is primarily our mission, to build bridges through the arts, through education, through any other avenue that’s open to us.” 

Cultivating home through food

Rashida Holmes and Malique Smith’s families immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, respectively. Holmes moved to several states with her family as a child before settling in Los Angeles. It was here she cultivated a sense of home. For her, whose restaurant features Bajan, Trinidadian and other Caribbean fare, home is found in what’s on your plate.

“I just want to bring what home meant to me to Los Angeles because I couldn’t get it here.” In 2020, Holmes and Smith started Bridgetown Roti in East Hollywood. “​​I saw a place where my story could be told and get a lot of attention, because nobody was really doing it in this town,” said Holmes. 

A man stands with his arm around a woman in front of a flowering bush.
Malique Smith (left) and Rashida Holmes, owners of Bridgetown Roti restaurant. (Photo credit: Kennedy Clark)

Summer 2020, when George Floyd was murdered, galvanized a global reckoning with systemic inequities in various institutions and industries, including the restaurant industry. In the U.S., only 3% of businesses are Black-owned. The gulf between Black-owned and white-owned businesses is, in part, the result of the growing racial wealth gap and lending discrimination.

“Being a small business is hard. But, being a small Black business is even harder. We don’t get the same grants, we don’t get the same love, we don’t get the same sharing. But I’ve learned that we have to be, like most things, even better, we have to strive even harder, because those opportunities are even less,” explained Smith. 

Despite alarming disparities, Bridgetown Roti is succeeding and paving the way for more Black-owned restaurants to do the same. With the momentum stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement, what started as a pop-up survived the pandemic and is now a community staple.

“I think we’re in the decade of the Diaspora, and I think diasporic cuisine is having a moment right now,” said Holmes. “I would say 2020 was a reckoning for the food industry, and its lack of representation, not only recognizing Black chefs…but recognizing Blacks just for doing our own [thing].”

Holmes and Smith hope to expand their Bridgetown Roti brand to grocery stores where community members can buy their patties wholesale, what they consider a huge milestone for a Black-owned business. “I want to create something that’s as ubiquitous to people as pizza,” said Holmes. I want to be “part of their lives” in that way.  

Immigration is a Black issue

Cultural preservation and sharing one’s heritage are ways to fight erasure once settled in the U.S., But, how do we challenge systems that harm Black immigrants trying to reach America?

The UndocuBlack Network exists to “create space for currently and formerly undocumented Black immigrants” and to remind us that “immigration is a Black issue.” 

According to a 2022 report from UndocuBlack and three partner advocacy groups, more than 76% of Black immigrants faced deportation following interactions with police. And while Black immigrants only account for 6% of ICE detainees, they account for 28% of all abuse-related reports. Additionally, Black immigrants face the lengthiest ICE detentions and are faced with bond amounts double or triple the amount of than other immigrants, reported American Friends Service Committee, a nonviolence and social change group, in 2021.

Haddy Gassama, emigrated from Gambia to the U.S. at age 8. Today, she’s the director of policy and advocacy at UndocuBlack. She said her advocacy is driven by a deeply personal  belief that “people should have the right to move [freely], to seek safety, and refuge.” It is imperative to understand how anti-Black racism is directly related to violence and harm against Black immigrant communities.

A Black woman stands behind the podium at a Black immigration rally.
Haddy Gassama, UndocuBlack Network’s director of policy and advocacy, speaks at Rally for TPS4Mauritania in Washington D.C., 2023. (Photo courtesy UndocuBlack Network)

“There is something we call a prison to deportation pipeline. Black people tend to live in over- policed neighborhoods already. We are racially profiled, and oftentimes, are statistically more likely to have interactions with law enforcement. So Black [im]migrants are oftentimes doubly punished because of how anti-lack and racist the U.S. is,” explained Gassama. 

Black immigrants often face harsher punishments in detention and deportation proceedings. Credible fear interviews, which are reviewed by Customs and Border Protection or ICE, require individuals to make their case for asylum, but necessarily in a language they speak or fully understand. 

“It begs the question, if the person who you’re interviewing, trying to assess whether or not they have a legitimate fear of being deported back to their home country, doesn’t even understand the question you’re asking them, how can you fairly say that you’ve assessed that fear? And that you’ve determined that it’s OK to deport that person?” posited Gassama.  

Black immigrants that speak languages other than Spanish and French may face additional barriers in seeking asylum. On many occasions, government agencies did not have adequate access to language services or paperwork in more languages.   

In order to book an appointment at the southern U.S. border, an applicant needs access to a reliable phone and internet connection to download the  CBP One app.  They must also upload a picture as part of the booking process. For those fleeing violence, this is a tall order or outright impossible. Known racial bias in facial recognition technology is also problematic. The app’s difficulty recognizing Black faces accurately is well-documented.

Three Black people stand at the foot of the Supreme Court's steps.
(Left) Haddy Gassama, Ronnie James and another UBN member in front of the Supreme Court, 2023. (Photo courtesy UndocuBlack Network)

UndocuBlack is currently advocating for Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from Cameroon, Mauritania, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. This would protect them from deportation and help them access work visas to remain in the U.S. However, the goal is to ensure a pathway to citizenship for all Black immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S. The organization hopes to update a current provision of an existing immigration law called the Registry. The update would allow those who have been in the U.S. for a continuous amount of years to be able to adjust their status. 

She believes that all immigrants should have the right to seek safety and refuge, most especially Black immigrants who face additional barriers to seeking citizenship. “UndocuBlack’s stance is that DACA was never enough to begin with. And we need permanent status like green cards, a pathway to citizenship,” said Gassama, “for our folks, we’ve been pushing for a policy called registry [so] if you’ve been in the country continuously, you should be able to adjust your status and get permanent residency.” 

The long game is to get the Congressional Black Caucus on board and take ownership of immigration as a Black issue, especially given the growing Black immigrant population in the country.

“I think the leadership of that caucus [needs] to recognize that immigration is very much a Black issue in the same way that voting rights is,” said Gassama, “in the same way that any form of criminal justice reform is, the issues are so interlinked.” 

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