Being undocumented while Black

"There is no fear. There is no backing down.”

Credit: Getty/ruffraido
Credit: Getty/ruffraido

It’s been two months since President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, throwing the lives of 800,000 undocumented immigrants into uncertainty and fear. The discussions around the program, which gave temporary work authorization and deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, are often focused on the Latinx community — but in reality, the program benefited a wide variety of people. One of the communities most erased in the discussions are Black undocumented immigrants, leaving them with less resources and support after Trump’s actions.

There are approximately 575,000 undocumented Black immigrants living in this country. Approximately 10.6 percent of immigrants in removal proceedings between 2003 and 2015 were Black. Last month, about 36,000 DACA beneficiaries missed a key deadline to renew their applications one last time. There is a lot of misinformation swirling and Black immigrants eligible for DACA may not totally know what resources are out there because organizers say programs like DACA were marketed heavily to the Latinx community.

“I know for me it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” said Marybeth Onyeukwu, 31, a Nigerian who has been a DACA beneficiary for the past five years, on what life has been like since Trump came to office. Onyeukwu works as a trainer and has been active in the immigrant rights movement long before DACA was up for debate.

“DACA has afforded me a lot of opportunities that I didn’t have five years ago. I have an apartment now in my own name. I work. I’m independent of my father, so do I have to go back to that way of life again? Now that some time has passed I feel a little more certain that it’s imperative for people like myself to maintain that sense of dignity. But what that means and what that looks like I’m not sure.”


She told ThinkProgress the threat facing her became especially apparent this past February. She was traveling back from North Carolina, where she attended a leadership retreat for Black organizers across the country, when a friend texted her warning her about checkpoints. That kind of panic and fear sounds surreal for some, but for her, “That’s when it became real.”

Waiting in immigration limbo

Onyeukwu is just one of many Black undocumented immigrants in the United States now unsure how to move forward.

Desiree Venn Frederick, a 30-something woman originally from Sierra Leone, is also trying to figure out what to do next. Venn Frederick has been in the United States since 1989, but wasn’t eligible for DACA because she had just turned 31 in 2012. Frederick had been granted temporary protective status as a child, and managed to attend college for one year before her status caught up with her. Things began to unravel for her when she was arrested in connection to an ex-boyfriend’s embezzlement case that she maintains she knew nothing about. Soon after spending time in a halfway house as a result of the ex-boyfriend’s implication, she was arrested again after a rescheduled immigration hearing for overstaying her visa. This time, she spent nearly half of 2013 in detention. For two of those months, she said, she was placed in solitary confinement for her own protection, where she suffered anxiety and claustrophobia and survived on a daydream of one day owning a vintage shop.

Luck swung back in Frederick’s favor that spring and she was released and granted protective asylum status. Six weeks later she filed for her business license and by August of 2014 she was opening the doors to Nomad Yard, her very own vintage shop in Washington, D.C. Her shop was bustling, beautiful, and also operated as a retail incubator for other micro businesses. Things were looking up for Frederick. National magazines were reaching out for fashion features, and she was the focus of  a glowing Washington Post profile. She had momentum, she had a future, and she had gained stability and control over her life. That was until the harsh realities of gentrification found her and forced her out of her space last December. Now, without a business, she struggles to support herself because she can’t work legally in this country anymore.


“I’ve kind of grown accustomed to disappointment in this country,” Frederick told ThinkProgress. “Closing the business really brought back a lot of those feelings during when I was undocumented. I was diagnosed with PTSD directly connected to immigration detention. I’ve spent the last few months just really trying to figure out what that means for me and really trying to focus on my mental health.”

Frederick has refocused her energy towards raising awareness and immigrant rights activism. In September, she gave a TEDx talk titled “I’m a criminal because of where I was born,” urging the average American to see the humans behind the immigrant headlines and statistics.

There are thousands of other people like Onyeukwu and Frederick. To help Black immigrants wade through the murky waters, organizations like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the UndocuBlack Network exist.

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, founded in 2006, advocates for racial, social, and economic justice for Black immigrants to this country and strives to bridge the gap between that community and the African American community. The organization is on the ground in a handful of regions and offers a variety of programs and resources.

In January of 2016, the UndocuBlack Network, which is made up of either current or former undocumented Black immigrants was formed to help support that community through myriad of resources.


“One of the most powerful things that the network offers for our folks is a sense of community,” said Jonathan Jayes-Green, co-founder of the UndocuBlack Network.

“For such a long time we’ve been talking about immigration, but we do not talk about Black undocumented folks in particular. We’ve ignored our particular experiences and issues and the ways in which we interact with the system. We ignore our stories. So UndocuBlack to me is a movement as well as a love letter to our people so that they know that they are heard, they are seen, they are loved. And that they have a home to come to. Now, fighting back and resistance looks different for some people. At UndocuBlack we’ve been focusing on how to prepare our folks to survive,” said Jayes-Green.

The organization launched a new mental health awareness initiative last month to help professionals treating undocumented Black patients. It has also been methodical in expanding its network. Right now, they have chapters in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. Each chapter strives to empower people with the correct information, offer resources like funds for DACA renewal or legal help in detainment cases, and above all, provide a feeling of a community.

“We hold events like potlucks for everyone to just come together and relax,” says Ronnie James, who is the co-leader for the New York City based chapter.

James, originally from St. Lucia, immigrated here when he was six years old with his brother, on behalf of their mother who was already established in this country. They first came to North Carolina and moved between North Carolina and New York before finally settling in New York. He attends the City College of New York and is pursuing a degree in international studies.  

Even though he feels somewhat grateful that he will at least be able to finish his degree, there’s still the thought of what could have been and might not ever be.

“Before the recession of DACA the long term goal was to finish my degree and go straight into my masters if need be. I would have liked to be the Secretary of State,” he says. “They oversee a lot of the global relations and right now this administration — they are doing more to break those ties than solidify them. I would like to be apart of the efforts post this administration to help fix our global relationships.”

Entitled to the American Dream

There are nuances in every community. One in the Black immigrant experience is the notion of whether or not the United States is “home.” Another New York chapter lead for the UndocuBlack Network cautions against using that defense for everyone.

“We have pride in our cultures,” stressed Lee-Ann Graham, who moved from Trinidad to Harlem, New York when she was 14 years old, and arrived just ten days before the September 11 attacks.

“When I hear the generalization for DREAMERS that America is the only home we know, I for one put my hand up and say no. [My culture] is the biggest part of me. I’m grateful for the opportunities that America presents, but I by no means feel that, don’t kick me out because this is my only home. There are two sides to the coin, and only one side is being presented.”

She has a point. While the United States is the only place many undocumented immigrants have only ever known, immigrants also shouldn’t feel like they need to justify wanting so desperately to stay and maintain the opportunity and promise of this land.

Still, everyone ThinkProgress spoke to stressed the need for understanding why immigrants choose to come to the United States. “We need to start asking ourselves why people immigrate and leave their homes for new lands in the first place,” said Frederick. Or as James put it, “People don’t leave their countries for poops and giggles.”

As many immigrants have varied statuses, and as the worst possibility looms, Graham said the only way to get through your day is to be willing to “do it scared.”

“I understand fear. I can understand insecurity. But if your parents can start from scratch, you can too. There is no fear. There is no backing down,” Graham encourages. “That’s why I was drawn to UndocuBlack, that’s their message.”

Designing the perfect immigration reform is an impossible task. DACA beneficiaries, their parents, and even immigrants who have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and are in the country legally all have uncertain futures now.

“I don’t even know what that would look like,” Onyeukwu says.

As many Black immigrants have expressed, the conversation around immigration reform usually doesn’t take into account Black immigrants.

“It really boils down to an element of white supremacy within the immigrant-rights movement that preferences light-skinned people,” Carl Lipscombe, the deputy director for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told the Root. “What we’ve seen over the past 20 years in the mainstream immigrant-rights movement is this focus on integration and assimilation. But when they’re talking about integrating and assimilating into the U.S., they’re not talking about assimilating into Black America.”

Frederick made a point in saying, “We actually have more ownership than we realize. I do identify as aboriginal, I have a bloodline that connects to South Carolina. Just because I was born in another nation does not disconnect that ancestry. So I wouldn’t view myself as being run out of a country that I don’t have ownership of.”   

Perhaps immigration reform could begin with an expansion of our collective understanding of the immigrant experience.