Mass incarceration and immigration enforcement are branches of the same system of confinement and exclusion. This is rooted in a long history in the United States where citizenship is defined as white, land-owning, and male, placing black people in opposition.

Even after the ratification of the 13th amendment — which stopped enslavement except as a punishment for crime — and the 14th amendment — which granted citizenship to all persons born in the U.S. and equal protection under the law — black people’s ability to fully exercise and benefit from a U.S. citizenship has been contested from the Reconstruction Era.

Black immigrants have folded into black communities increasingly over the last century, while destabilization abroad due to colonialism and imperialism, continues to drive black people out of their homelands. Stringent visa caps, declining refugee admissions, call to end birthright citizenship, and well-funded deportation agencies, all block black people from exercising their rights as citizens. 

Since both mass incarceration and immigration enforcement function as state mechanisms of punishment and policing, black people have been disproportionately impacted.

Here are five commonalities between mass incarceration and immigration enforcement:

1. Black people are over-represented in the U.S. prison system as well as in deportation proceedings.

According to Pew Research, in 2017 black people represented 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, while occupying 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. Black people faced incarceration rates six times higher than incarceration rates for white people. But the stark figures do not stop in the prison complex.

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) published State of Black Immigrants Report, where they analyzed and studied the effects of the changes of immigration to black people. The findings in the report were of mass importance.  

“Although black immigrants comprise just 5.4 percent of the unauthorized population in the United States, and 7.2 percent of the total noncitizen population, they made up a striking 10.6 percent of all immigrants in removal proceedings between 2003 and 2015,” the report said.

Black immigrants, it was found, were also more likely than any other group to face deportation on criminal grounds.

2. Criminalization of black communities increases contact with police (and immigration enforcement agencies).

Over-policing and overcriminalization of black communities produce disproportionate interaction with police. New York City’s notorious “Stop and Frisk” policy is a strong example of this fact. Trends toward profiling residents of color based clothes, behaviors, tattoos under the guise of gang affiliation, remains a means of justifying surveillance.

For black immigrants, suspected gang affiliation can be a fast track to deportation.

3. Relatedly, increased militarization of local law enforcement agencies authorizes them to serve as immigration enforcement agencies.

The militarization of local law enforcement means providing them with increased technologies and expanding their authority. Excess military weapons passed to local law enforcement are often used to surveil black and brown communities under the guise of drug and terrorism task forces.

President Trump’s call to accelerate the militarization of the southwest border and laws like Arizona’s controversial “Show your papers” (SB1070), empower Customs and Border Patrol (C.B.P), and domestic law enforcement, to excessively target communities of color. In the case of SB1070, it is inconceivable that poor and working-class U.S. citizens without access to, or readily accessible documents — such as U.S. passports or birth certificates — could become vulnerable to whims of immigration enforcement agencies.

These kinds of policies encourage the flagrant violation of constitutional and human rights.

4. Cooperation between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E) and state/local agencies can be extensive.

Florida’s anti-immigrant Senate Bill 168 highlights this level of collaboration. The bill requires state and local agencies to enforce federal immigration law, and bans sanctuary city policies.  This kind of legislation is concerning for Florida as the state is home to the nation's second-largest black immigrant population — mostly from the Caribbean.

Adding insult to injury, standards of immigration detention are set by state/local prisons, where family detention centers function in the same capacity as prisons. Families and children are caged in detention centers, even though seeking asylum at a legal port of entry in the United States is allowed.

In many cases of incarceration, people are subjected to overcrowding, inadequate medical and mental health services, physical and sexual abuse, and even death.

5. Criminal convictions carry invisible punishments regardless of citizenship.

While incarceration is supposed to serve as the primary consequence of a criminal conviction, many people continue to face additional hurdles after the fact. This includes exclusion from voting, access to public assistance, gainful employment, federal financial aid, and more. Denial of these resources often contributes to recidivism, or the likelihood to re-offend.

Similarly, immigrants with certain convictions also become ineligible for immigration relief programs such as DACA, TPS, and DED, which would otherwise allow them to seek employment and access a driver’s license. Even marijuana-related charges can bar immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens under federal law.

While Black people continue to struggle against the ways structural, and global, inequality marginalizes our communities and compels many to alternate modes of survival, the merging of criminal enforcement agencies and immigration will continue to be an area of concern.

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