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Yvette Clarke
Rep. Yvette Clarke holds a news conference at the Capitol. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The CBC Wrestles With Whether Immigration Is a ‘Black Issue’

In a rare instance of division, some members think Biden is alienating Black voters by not speaking on immigration as a Black issue. Others aren’t so sure.

The Congressional Black Caucus, usually one of the most united groups in Congress, is currently grappling with an issue that has divided Democrats for decades: immigration.

Specifically, CBC members can’t seem to decide whether to talk about immigration as a “Black issue” or to treat the issue more as a generic item of political ideology.

Immigration has long been one of the trickiest issues for Democrats, dividing the party along a number of fault lines and giving Republicans plenty of room to attack their counterparts. But as President Joe Biden makes an executive order to address illegal border crossings, the CBC is internally debating Biden’s border policies — and how the president’s rhetoric has ignored how immigration is also a Black issue. (Naturalized Black immigrants counted for nearly 20% of Black people eligible to vote in Florida in 2020, for example.)

“He hasn’t been specific,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, co-chair of CBC’s immigration task force, said of Biden. “And I’m very concerned about his announcement in the limitation of individuals who are seeking refugee status and closing the border.”

Arizona Immigration Border
People line up against a border wall as they wait to apply for asylum after crossing the border. Gregory Bull/AP

Clarke told NOTUS that several years ago — “I want to say, back in 2018, before the pandemic” — she and then-Rep. Karen Bass went to Mexico “because there were many, many migrants of African descent that were trapped.”

“We have acknowledged and recognized that that needs to be a part of the conversation,” Clarke said. “We want to diminish the role that racism plays in admitting individuals to the United States.”

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove told NOTUS that CBC members have been talking about immigration as a “Black issue” and have been “framing” it in those stark terms.

She argued that the United States has an obligation to “create different immigration circumstances” for African immigrants “given their growing power.” (Africans will make up a quarter of the world’s population by 2025, according to the International Monetary Fund.)

“We have an obligation to make connections between foreign policy, economic policy, foreign development and diplomacy and immigration,” Kamlager-Dove said.

She also criticized the Biden administration’s 2022 “Uniting for Ukraine” program that gave temporary immigration status to Ukrainian refugees. She called it a “double standard.”

“They have fast-tracked visas for these folks, and they have worked with community-based organizations to resettle them here in this country, to find them jobs, to find them housing,” Kamlager-Dove told NOTUS this week. “Yeah, that is great. We are also talking about white-looking people with blond hair.”

“If we are willing to fast-track policies like that for Ukrainians,” she continued, “we should also be able to do the same for other countries that are in need that we are working with.”

However, other senior members of the CBC are adamant that the current immigration issues have little to do with race.

As Rep. Jim Clyburn put it, “This is a numbers game.”

“It has to do with the border and what’s taking place at the border. It has nothing to do with what countries they’re coming from,” Clyburn said

Another senior CBC member, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, spoke of his efforts to make the immigration system “color-blind.”

“If I’m from Liberia or Ghana, Sierra Leone, whatever, and somehow get to the United States, then I should be given every consideration as anybody else,” he told NOTUS.

Rep. Glenn Ivey wasn’t as dismissive, but he insisted that only members from districts with sizable Black immigrant populations — like him — are the ones talking about immigration as being a specific Black issue.

“I’ve been approached by people from Haiti or Cameroon, and yeah, we want to make sure we’re doing things to address the concerns specific to those,” he told NOTUS. “I do have a fair amount of immigrants in my district who are from Africa, for example, but I think it’s a case-by-case basis.”

Nevertheless, CBC members aren’t sure what to make of Biden’s new executive order and his crackdown on border crossings. On the political side, CBC members — usually some of Biden’s strongest cheerleaders — seem to understand the president’s need to address a potent campaign issue that Donald Trump is hammering Biden over. But they also see his executive order as potentially problematic. As Rep. Ritchie Torres put it, Biden’s solution to border crossings may come at the “cost of excluding and erasing certain communities of color.”

“I feel like we should not abandon our roots as the party of immigrants,” Torres told NOTUS. “Like, immigration is our greatest strength. It is what sustains our entrepreneurial and essential workforce.”

“If we become indistinguishable from the Republicans on the issue of immigration, we’re becoming the very evil we seek to resist,” he added.

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.