Connecting African American & Immigrant Experiences

With the persistence of both real and perceived tensions between African American and new immigrant communities, many organizations are developing activities that encourage their members and constituents to make connections between these groups’ historical and present-day experiences. These typically include comparisons of migration experiences, indentured servitude, and policing / criminal justice. Some of the most noteworthy examples from our research include:

The Middle Passage and Human Trafficking

Several interviewees referenced a powerful activity that re-enacts the Middle Passage—the experience of being transported on a slave ship across the Atlantic. This “experiential” activity humanizes a historical system of oppression in visceral ways, promoting empathy and stimulating thought. It also opens an opportunity for discussion of human trafficking and the experience of undocumented migration. Groups with experience facilitating conversation around these issues include Black Workers for Justice, the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the Center for New Community, and the Highlander Research and Education Center. To find resources on contemporary human trafficking, see

Slavery, Indentured Servitude and Forced Labor

“I think that organizations should invest time in really looking at the history of slavery as a starting point for working with any ethnic group. I think that’s important because it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you’re working with, people are addressing experiences of racism grounded on the history of racism in this country,” asserted Aurea Montes-Rodriguez of the Community Coalition. We came across two organizations with campaigns that made reference to the experiences of African Americans either as forced laborers or indentured servants vis-à-vis current conditions:

Tenants and Workers United in Virginia organized taxi drivers to change a law that protected a monopoly and allowed the taxi company to pass along many of its costs to the drivers. Former Director Jon Liss shared, “We did a lot of talk about sharecropping because, at the end of day, it was very much like sharecropping – you’d end up in debt/ drivers would be making next to nothing. It was interesting in terms of the racial history of this country, these immigrant men of color taxi drivers saw themselves vis-à-vis the dominant white monopoly company.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization of low-wage agricultural workers in South Florida. Its Anti-Slavery Campaign uncovers, investigates, and assists in the federal prosecution of slavery rings preying on farmworkers.  The CIW also educates the broader public about modern day slavery. Its Modern Day Slavery Museum is housed in a truck and travels around the country to community groups and college campuses to educate people on modern day slavery.

Mobility as a Means of Survival and Opportunity: Immigration and the Great Migration

Interviewees commonly recognized parallels between 20th Century African American migration out of the South (the Great Migration) and present-day immigration :

The UC Berkeley Labor Center’s C. L. Dellums African American Union Leadership School shows a film, Uprooted: Refugees of the Global Economy. They stimulate participants’ reflections on why their families migrated to California as a segue into discussing contemporary immigration.

Tenants and Workers United in Virginia has also facilitated conversations about the similarities between the migration of African Americans from South to North and that of women immigrating from Central America to the United States in the current moment. To do this, they put Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on the Great Migration onto slides and used the images to stimulate conversation.

Parallel Movements? Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights

Some immigrant rights activists are quick to declare the question of immigrant rights the “civil rights issue of our time.” Others are reluctant to invoke the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s because of the deep meaning it holds, in terms of its historical context and for the communities that led its anti-racist struggle. While recognizing this tension, interviewees offered some key examples of how the parallels were helpful in their work:

The Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network in North Carolina conducts an activity that shows how anti-immigrant organizing in the South parallels white supremacist organizing. By focusing on the discriminatory elements of immigration policy and other domestic policies, the organization encourages its participants to build the notion of global citizenship.

The Mississippi Poultry Worker Center MPOWER has screened the award-winning film A Time for Justice, available to educators free of charge through Teaching Tolerance, to audiences comprised of new Latino immigrants. MPOWER staff used simultaneous interpretation to narrate the film in Spanish. The film uses black and white photographs and narration to vividly depict the violence that southern Black communities endured during the Civil Rights Movement. MPOWER’s members reported shock at the level of racist violence endured, as well as inspiration at the courage of those involved in the movement. The film worked well as an introduction to the recent histories of racism and struggle in Mississippi and the South.

A representative of Kansas Sunflower Community Action noted that comparing the struggles and goals of the Civil Rights Movement and the immigrant rights movement “was a good way to do it, because once people got to know each other a little bit, that relationship was deepened. It helped our members understand that they’re part of the same organization and part of a bigger movement.”

The Criminal-Immigration Nexus: Policing and Prisons

In contrast to the comparisons with more historical experiences of African Americans discussed above, several organizations interviewed offer examples of bridge-building using present day themes. With the rise of local law enforcement of federal immigration laws and the longstanding over-representation of African Americans in the criminal justice system, these comparisons often hinge around issues of criminalization, incarceration, and racialization:

Families for Freedom in New York City’s work lies at the intersection of the U.S. criminal and immigration systems. It uses public education as a starting point for dialogue. The organization has used media, radio, and public service announcements on the impact of the criminal justice system on immigrants and citizens of color to reframe debates and relationships. In 2011 Families for Freedom’s work contributed to the rollback of Secure Communities in the state of New York.

Similarly, in 2010 the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice’s African American and immigrant constituencies united in a campaign to get an immigrant member released from jail after having been illegally detained for months. A sheriff with a reputation for disproportionately targeting Black and Latino communities catalyzed collaboration of the organization’s membership across difference, while freeing one man became both an organizing goal and an opportunity for popular education around racialized policing practices and the Prison Industrial Complex. The Center prevailed on both accounts.

In 2008, the Garden State Alliance for a New Economy conducted a dialogue among African American and immigrant construction workers involved in the creation of a new union local. A memorable segment that gave way to bridge-building around parallel experience was framed around the concepts of identity and work. Some African American workers spoke of having served jail time. They shared feeling like they carry the felon label on their forehead and how it affects their ability to access work. Immigrant workers talked about the experience of being undocumented, and how it, too, impacts access to work. Facilitators reflected on the emotion in the conversation and how it enabled both groups to better recognize their common struggles as criminalized workers of color.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause is working to end the criminalization of Black and Latino communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its members and those of other ally organizations recently rallied around the issue of a San Francisco city policy that punished those driving without a license by impounding their car for 30 days. This practice disproportionately affected African American and immigrant communities and affected people’s abilities to get to work. With driving a basic need, they held community hearings and town halls throughout the city where people talked about their experiences. In uniting various communities of color in a common struggle, Causa Justa :: Just Cause and its allies convinced the police chief to alter the policy in favor of a less punitive response.