Beyond  /  Comment

The Black Refugee Tradition

Undocumented Black migrants struggle to have their asylum rights recognized in the United States. Groups have been asking President Biden to stop deportations.

... Haitians who have been deported since Biden took office on January 20, and who have been forcibly returned to the U.S.-backed regime of President Jovenel Moïse, who governs without a legislature and who oversees a nation where 40% of the people face daily food insecurity.

... Haitians who have been deported since Biden took office on January 20, and who have been forcibly returned to the U.S.-backed regime of President Jovenel Moïse, who governs without a legislature and who oversees a nation where 40% of the people face daily food insecurity.

The United States violates multiple international asylum agreements when it detains and deports asylum-seekers. Most seriously, ICE’s deportation of Cameroonians, Haitians, Mauritanians, and others breaks with one of the fundamental guarantees of the Geneva Convention on Refugees: non-refoulement, the right of a refugee to not return to a place where there exists a credible threat to their “life or freedom.” Asylum-seeking thus increasingly drops migrants into transatlantic systems of detention. ICE incarcerates them only to return them to western-backed dictatorships who investigate returnees for ties to internal rebel movements.

The United States’ violation of international law must be understood as anti-Black, in addition to being anti-Latinx and anti-Indigenous. As Carl Lindskoog has shown, current U.S. policies toward asylum-seekers – interdiction (interception and summary return of migrants still en-route), stringent documentation burdens, mandatory detention without bond – have their origins in bipartisan efforts to contain and expel the thousands of Haitians (so-called “boat people”) fleeing the U.S.-backed Duvalier regimes in the 70s and 80s. While anticommunism was at play here, so were racial discourses that framed Black migrants as more likely to be criminal and public charges. More recently, Trump infamously called Haiti and African nations “s***hole countries” as his administration tried to phase out Temporary Protected Status for Haitian refugees and successfully shrunk the cap on refugee emigration (in 2019, Africans made up over half of the legal refugees resettled in the U.S.).

U.S. deportation of undocumented migrants is also anti-Black because it suppresses a Black political practice that can be traced back to the diaspora’s resistance to the transatlantic slave system: The Black Refugee Tradition. Longer than even the struggle for civil rights under domestic law, asylum rights in international law has been the site through which Black women and men have made their freedom. Throughout the eighteenth century, enslaved people in British colonies freed themselves by claiming religious asylum as Catholics in Spanish colonies. In the Age of Revolutions, Black people freed themselves by fleeing to imperial officials as loyalists persecuted by the illegitimate regimes of their enslavers. In the nineteenth century, African captives in the slave trade freed themselves before British-led mixed commission courts meant to suppress illegal slave trafficking. Whatever the state of their “social death” in colonial and national law, they were alive as refugees at treaty tables and in diplomatic correspondence.

In ways not immediately intended by Parliament, British abolition turned enslaved freedom-seekers into activists of international law. Thousands of enslaved people, whether crossing into British Canada from the U.S. or swimming to Royal Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean, had the effect of gradually ...