On a late November day last year, Nora Johnson walked out of a courtroom on Staten Island. She’d been on the docket for shoplifting a wig—not her best decision, given that she was already on probation for a shoplifting charge from a year earlier—but it didn’t look like the judge was going to give her jail time. At 45, she had a modest rap sheet that listed only minor, petty crimes, and her probation officer liked her. Grateful, she walked towards the exit.
In the hall, Nora bumped into an old friend. She broke into the glowing smile she often carries under her round, thick cheekbones and the two chatted and caught up. Full-figured with wide hips, you can still see echoes of the muscular tennis-player’s body she had before giving birth to her five children. They talked about opening a beauty salon together near Park Hill, the low-income housing project on Staten Island where they’d both grown up. Nora was well liked there, known as outgoing and warm—even a little flamboyant—and she’d run a popular salon in the neighborhood before. She promised to give her friend a call about the idea and headed toward the exit.
As she walked, a young Latino man in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans strode up beside her. He was walking a little too close, looming over her, with another woman and man trailing not far behind. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” he asked. Nora had dressed up for court, and she was used to attention from men, so she tried to brush him away by smiling nervously and saying she was married.
“No, I’m from ICE, and I need to talk to you,” he said. Nora was confused. “What is ICE?” she asked.
If you met Nora on the street, you would assume she’s American. And in most respects, you’d be right. She speaks with an accent common to cities on the Eastern Seaboard, and has the mannerisms and attitude of a typical New Yorker. You’d have to ask the right questions to learn she was born in Liberia, a small country on the western coast of Africa, and that she arrived in the US in 1982, when she was just 10. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of African-born immigrants like her increased nearly eightfold, from just under 200,000 to over 1.5 million.
It’s been a disconcerting year for African immigrants. Along with the other routine nativist invective he flings from his office, Donald Trump has more than once singled out those from Africa as examples of whom he’d like to keep out of the country. Last December he reportedly questioned the issuance of travel visas to Nigerians, who would never “go back to their huts” after entering the country, and a few months later he called African countries “shitholes” during an immigration negotiation. Not long after, it was announced that special visas granted to Liberians who fled during the country’s civil war would not be renewed next year, opening up the prospect of thousands who’ve lived here since the 1990s being deported.
Trump’s comments were unremarkable for him, in their familiar mix of menace and unhinged cluelessness—Nigerian immigrants are the most highly educated in the nation, and no strangers to opulence and wealth—but statistics released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last December show the teeth behind the words. In its year-end report, the agency celebrated its accomplishments during the first nine months of the Trump administration, pointing to an increase in arrests and deportations from the year before. Among the nationalities that saw a rise in deportations, the biggest proportional spike was for those from sub-Saharan Africa, which more than doubled overall, rising from 909 to 2,184.
“People are worried,” said Henrietta White-Holder, a Liberian American community advocate who runs an outreach center for African immigrants in Providence, Rhode Island. “They’re afraid of going out and socializing because they know they can be arrested at any moment and taken away. There’s a great deal of fear in the community.”
Despite living in the US for more than 35 years, Nora had never encountered immigration agents before. She came to New York to join her parents, who separated when she was a baby. Not long after the separation, Nora’s father left for the States, and nearly a decade later her mother followed suit, sending for Nora shortly thereafter. Both of her parents had naturalized by the time Nora arrived, but they didn’t file the citizenship paperwork for her. Her lawyers say that she became a citizen automatically once her parents naturalized, but ICE doesn’t see it that way, arguing that she’s one of the 600,000 or so undocumented black immigrants in America and should thus be deported.
According to Perry McAninch, one of those lawyers, it isn’t uncommon for immigrants with ambiguous citizenship claims to be swept up by ICE and pushed into deportation hearings. Immigration agents aren’t eager to investigate whether someone they arrest has a valid claim to legal status—the immigration enforcement system was built to effectuate removals, not to help people stay, and if a person doesn’t have documentation, it will do everything it can to expel them from the country. “They’re rounding up anyone who seems like they might not be American,” he said.
At the courthouse, Nora tried to plead with the agents as they escorted her toward a black SUV. “Why are you picking me up? I’ve been in this country over thirty years,” she begged. Whisked to lower Manhattan, she was booked into Department of Homeland Security custody at its infamous 201 Varick Street headquarters, where she was placed into a cell with other immigrants arrested that day. “This isn’t right. I’ve got my family at home, my kids. My mother is elderly,” she said to an officer.
“Yeah, they’re picking everybody up now,” he replied.
A few hours later, Nora was bussed to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, a prison with a wing set aside for detainees waiting to appear in immigration courts. She was issued an orange jumpsuit and brought to a large dorm where other women from across the world were being held. Exhausted, she curled up on a bed in the dorm and went to sleep.
Immigrants across America are under attack, but the central role played by the criminal justice system in deportation creates a specific kind of danger for immigrants from African countries.
To understand why, it helps to grasp the larger picture of the country’s estimated 4.2 million black immigrants, a number that amounts to 1 in 10 black people living in America. Just over half are from Caribbean nations like Jamaica and Haiti, but in recent decades a growing percentage of this population has come from sub-Saharan Africa.
The experiences of immigrants from Africa are as varied and unique as the countries they left behind, of course. Some have backgrounds rooted in the continent’s growing wealth, attending prestigious universities and establishing glittering careers in every realm from finance to the arts. Others arrive as refugees, asylum seekers, or diversity visa “lottery” winners. Many head to cities where relatives or friends can help them process their initial culture shock, giving rise to large diaspora communities in cities across the country. Houston for Nigerians, Minneapolis for Somalis, Providence for Liberians, and so on.
However, the color of their skin imposes its own singularity of experience. When diasporas settle near neighborhoods where black Americans have historically built their own communities, those communities are likely to be subjected to the same overpolicing and racial profiling that’s been a fact of life for generations in such neighborhoods. One of the most high-profile police shootings in recent New York City history, for example, was the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was gunned down in the Bronx by off-duty police officers who mistook him for a suspect in a rape case.
“A lot of us go from being kind of high status in Africa to being on the bottom of the racial and ethnic totem pole here in the US,” said Amaha Kassa, the director of African Communities Together. “We find out pretty quickly that no matter the color of your passport, in America, the color of your skin is black.”
The racial dynamics of policing and incarceration in the US are particularly consequential for black immigrants, who can face deportation for a staggeringly wide range of offenses. “Tough on crime” posturing by both Democrats and Republicans has led to a broad expansion of the list of offenses that can trigger deportation, even for long-term permanent residents. One of ICE’s central mandates is to find people with these convictions and get them into removal proceedings. Selling marijuana, for example, is classified as an “aggravated felony,” which makes automatic deportation proceedings nearly impossible to fight.
“When black people engage the immigrant rights conversation, we have to discuss mass criminalization and what that means,” said Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, an analyst at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “We can’t shy away from it, because it’s central to how black people are warehoused, detained, and deported in this country.”
Unsurprisingly, racial disparities endemic to the American criminal justice system also plague removal proceedings for immigrants. Only about 7 percent of noncitizens in America are black, but they account for more than 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds. And a Marshall Project investigation found that only a third of those deported by ICE on criminal grounds in 2015 had convictions for potentially violent crimes. The agency’s own statistics from 2017 listed the top three most common crimes on the record of deported immigrants as DUIs, drug offenses, and immigration violations.
The link between racism in the criminal justice system and in immigration enforcement systems isn’t new, but in the first year of the Trump administration, things have gone from bad to worse for immigrants from some African countries. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics from 2017 show that deportations to Senegal rose from 21 to 197, Somalia from 198 to 521, and Ghana from 94 to 305, for example. Liberians saw deportation numbers quadruple, from 27 to 107. Spokesperson Brendan Raedy disputed that ICE is targeting African immigrants, arguing that deportations to the continent were miniscule in comparison to the number of removed Mexicans and Central Americans. “I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to talk about priorities while excluding 90 percent of the data,” he said.
Jennifer Grey-Brumskine, a Liberian community leader from Park Hill, sees it differently. She’s frustrated by how little attention has been paid to the impact that harsh immigration policies have had on her community for years.
“When Latino immigrants are picked up by ICE, it’s everywhere on the news, but when it’s African immigrants it’s like we don’t hear anything about it,” she said. “Could it be because we’re a little too dark?”
“Nora Johnson” is a pseudonym—she and her lawyers fear that having her real name in the press could be dangerous, given ICE’s recent tactic of cracking down on immigrants who speak out about their experiences. She was born in 1972 in Monrovia, the capital of a country deeply entwined with America’s history of racism. Liberia was established in the early 1800s to facilitate the emigration of former slaves from Southern states to an as-yet-uncolonized swath of land in West Africa. Eventually the emigres, hoping to create a better society than the one they’d left behind, took control of the small colony from their white overseers, proclaiming it a republic in 1847.
Nora was born into a large family headed by her mother, Agatha, a stern but kind matriarch with a stately personality. Not long after Nora’s birth, her parents separated and her father left for the US. Her early life was spent in Monrovia with Agatha. But in 1982, tragic news arrived at the family doorstep: Nora’s older sister had been murdered in Boston at the age of 14. In a case that made headlines, a member of the Boston police force would eventually accuse two other officers of sexually assaulting the young girl and killing her to cover up the crime.
Agatha was devastated, and hurriedly flew to America to search for answers. “My sister got killed and my mother never got over it, so I think every one of us was abandoned after that,” Nora said.
A year later Agatha sent for Nora and her brother, and she left Liberia behind for a new life in New York City. At first, she lived with her estranged father, but it didn’t go well. He was angry with Agatha and so neglectful of Nora that he didn’t even file her citizenship paperwork. Eventually she and her brother left to live with their mother on Staten Island, in the Park Hill housing projects.
The Park Hill projects are a sprawling set of red-brick public housing towers ringed by middle-class suburbs on the eastern edge of Staten Island. In the 1980s and ’90s, they had a reputation for violence and the drug trade. Nicknamed “Killa Hill,” the neighborhood is perhaps best known as having birthed the Wu-Tang Clan. It was also a destination for West African immigrants—Liberians in particular, especially after the country’s civil war began producing a steady flow of refugees in the 1990s. Now, there are buildings entirely full of Liberians. Residents of one such tower call it the “executive mansion,” after the presidential palace in central Monrovia.
Park Hill, like Liberia, is much safer now than it was in the ’90s, but when Nora arrived to live with her mother in 1983, it was a tough neighborhood on the cusp of the crack era. She was one of only a few African immigrants in Park Hill then, and she stood out. “Because of my Liberian accent, they put me in special ed,” she said. “But I didn’t want to be there because I felt like I was smarter than the other kids.” Nora had attended a prestigious elementary school in Monrovia, but her teachers assumed she was slow because she spoke differently and had grown up in Africa.
American attitudes toward Africa have slowly begun to change in recent years, as diasporas grow in the US and pop stars embrace music and fashion from the continent. But in the ’80s, when most people’s view of the continent started with Toto and ended with Zamunda, crude stereotyping was commonplace. Many immigrants from Africa have stories of being called names or asked ridiculous questions about wildlife by their new neighbors. “It’s a story of interdependence and integration as well as conflict,” Amaha Kassa of African Communities Together explained about the relationship between diaspora communities and their black American neighbors.
For Nora, those growing pains were personal, and hard. “We went through what you call bullying,” she said. Agatha didn’t have much money, and couldn’t afford to buy her the expensive sneakers and North Face jackets some of her peers wore to school. “You go to school, you got American friends that’s teasing you. You know why? ’Cause the shoes you got on is cheap,” Nora remembered. But she didn’t take the insults and jokes dished out by the other girls lying down, and when one threw a snowball at her face one winter she fought back, throwing the girl into the snow. Afterward, the bullying subsided.
Before long, Nora began to integrate into the neighborhood, earning a reputation for her charm and bravery. When she became pregnant with her first son, Kevin, at the young age of 14, Agatha took on most of the parenting responsibilities, and as Nora adjusted to her surroundings she started getting into the same trouble as many other girls in Park Hill. She and her friends were especially fond of shoplifting designer goods, which they’d either wear to school so they wouldn’t be teased for dressing in hand-me-downs or resell for a bit of cash.
“She came into a neighborhood that was very bad, one of the worst projects in New York, and wanted to fit in with the American girls,” said Kevin, 31, who’s now a highly sought-after makeup artist living in Harlem. “For her to be down, and be the ‘it’ African girl, she had to not only do what the other girls were doing but try to be better at it.”
Agatha was still obsessed with her daughter’s murder in Boston, compiling tapes and newspaper clippings about the case to send to journalists even after the Boston Police Department predictably exonerated the accused officers. Nora was being raised by Park Hill as much as Agatha by then, jumping between the world of the Liberian community and the one inhabited by friends who’d been born in the US. As the years passed, Agatha urged her to sort out her citizenship, but Nora shrugged her off. “Back then, nobody knew about this deportation thing,” said Agatha.
Nora became a fixture in Park Hill, a social butterfly who dated popular musicians and was friends with people across the city. “If you stand on the corner and say, ‘Who knows Nora?’ you will see over fifty people,” Agatha said. “If she got on a shirt and someone says, ‘I love that shirt,’ she will say, ‘Tomorrow come for it.’ ” Her love of expensive clothes didn’t always fit her income, though, and over the years she picked up a number of shoplifting charges.
As she aged out of her 20s, Nora met a handsome young Liberian who’d recently immigrated to the US. Before long they were married in what Agatha says was “the biggest wedding on Park Hill.” Nora gave birth to her fourth and fifth children, both girls, and settled into married life, working off the books as a home health aide. At the urging of her husband, she filed for legal residency in 2010, but her application was denied due to the time she’d spent in the country illegally.
Seven years later, Nora was alone in Hudson, facing the unfathomable possibility of being deported to Liberia, a country she hadn’t set foot in since the early 1980s. Some of the ICE guards were confused by her presence. “You don’t sound like you should be in immigration,” one told her. She became friendly with a few of them, who openly shared their dislike of Trump with her. “Most of them are immigrants who naturalized,” she said. But not all were so empathetic, and shortly after she was detained a pair of ICE agents came to her with an offer: if she was willing to sign a “voluntary departure” agreement and leave the country in 90 days, they’d see to it she was released to get her affairs in order.
But Agatha and Nora’s husband had managed to find good lawyers for her who worked for New York’s Legal Aid Society, a pro-bono firm partially funded by the city. When she told them about the offer, they made her promise not to sign the agreement. Because Nora’s parents had both naturalized before she was an adult, Nora’s lawyers felt that it was clear she’d automatically become a US citizen too, even if she’d never filed the paperwork. But the law required proof that her parents had formally married before Nora’s birth—not an easy task given that the ceremony had taken place in a remote Liberian village and there were no records to confirm it had happened.
The months dragged on, and Nora grew despondent, separated from her family in a prison wing while the uncertainty of her case mounted. At night, she heard the sounds of other detainees having sex with guards. “I was very suicidal,” she said. “But I thought about my kids. I couldn’t do it.”
In late February, after more than two months in Hudson, Nora finally appeared in court at 201 Varick Street, an unremarkable brick building nestled between Greenwich Village cafés and Soho boutiques, where every day immigration judges make a workmanlike procession of decisions over who is allowed to stay in America and who will leave. In a cramped room, weary-looking mothers held young children on their laps, waiting to be called in to see their spouses or relatives shuffle, orange clad and shackled, into a tiny adjacent courtroom.
Agatha was in the room, along with Nora’s husband, Michael, their two daughters, and her son Kevin. After a long wait, Nora was led into the narrow hallway next to the courtroom. Her daughters, 10 and 12, pressed their faces against a small glass pane at the door to catch a glimpse of her. “There she is,” one said, grabbing her sister’s arm.
The family was led into the courtroom where Nora sat at a table across from the judge, her hair cleanly brushed to the side of her round face. Agatha, heavyset in her mid-70s, walked slowly, leaning on her cane. She and Nora locked eyes, and they both began to cry.
“Nobody wants to talk about it, but this is scaring the shit out of her,” Kevin later said. “Because you’re going to go there with nowhere to live, you know what I mean?”
In the mind of many Americans, deportation is akin to simply being sent home. There’s an idea that what’s being returned to is something familiar, “the place they belong.” Even when the trauma of deportation is recognized, it’s usually intuited more in terms of what’s being lost than what must be faced on the other side of the doorway. But for many immigrants, it’s not that simple. Lifetimes may have been spent in the US, with identities built that don’t easily fit into now-unfamiliar worlds, and being “returned” to a country one left behind as a child can feel more like being exiled.
The western coast of Africa is disorienting for newcomers. The air hangs heavy and thick, with beating sun giving way to torrential rains sometimes in the same hour. Wild green brush carves defiant borders through suburban sprawl, and the systems that rule the space around you seem unpredictable and spontaneous, completely indifferent to any expectation of sterile orderliness. Everything feels amplified and painted with a technicolor glow, as the muted filter of life in easier places is lost to a directness that can be either refreshing or abrasive, depending on your mood. For Claudia Smith, who was deported to Sierra Leone from the US when she was 22 years old, it was almost too much to handle.
“When I got off the plane, the first thing that came into my mind was, I gotta find a quiet spot and kill myself,” she said. “I can’t be here.” She had no childhood memories of the country she’d left behind as a toddler, and the day she arrived it felt like a new kind of prison. “It was like there was a fog in the sky that only I could see. The atmosphere, weather, everything had just changed.”
Deportations to Africa are spiking under Trump, but they’re far from a novel phenomenon. His zeal for cleansing the country of immigrants might surpass that of his predecessors—at least rhetorically—but the underlying laws he’s using to carry out his vision have been in place for decades. Claudia was deported in 2003, right in the wake of a post-9/11 policy shift toward harsh immigration enforcement and just a few months after the birth of ICE. Her story is long, painful, and like the accent she and Nora both share, unmistakably American.
Abandoned by her mother when she was two, she was brought from Sierra Leone to Washington, DC, by her grandmother. One of her earliest memories is of a brutal murder in the apartment upstairs from where they lived in the outskirts of the city. When she was six, Claudia moved to Southeast DC to live with her father and his new wife. Like Park Hill, it was a perilous neighborhood for a young child in the mid-1980s, at the epicenter of a city-wide struggle with skyrocketing crime rates. “I don’t even like to remember it,” Claudia said. “I saw a lot of people die and get shot.”
Claudia’s father and stepmother were abusive, and she became rebellious and angry, eventually serving a three-month stint in juvenile hall for stealing her stepmother’s car at age 13. Sent to live in the basement by her father afterward, she decided to run away from home, moving in with a friend named Linda whom she’d met while locked up. Unsupervised, they spent their days looking for trouble. “We were smoking weed and PCP, jumping out of windows, stealing cars,” she said. “Just wilding out.”
One day, Claudia got into an argument with another girl, who showed up at Linda’s house with a carload of friends, ready for a fight. Linda had found a gun in her house a few weeks earlier, and she brought it outside and put it in Claudia’s hand. Claudia pointed it at the car and squeezed the trigger. “I didn’t see nothing after that, my whole vision got blurry,” Claudia remembered. “You know when the mind gets so traumatized it blacks out?” Linda yelled to her that they needed to leave. A girl in the car had taken a bullet to the arm, and before long Claudia and Linda were tracked down and arrested by a SWAT team.
Claudia was tried as an adult and convicted of attempted murder. Just after her 14th birthday, she was sent to Jessup Correctional Institution, a notorious adult prison outside of Baltimore. She was the youngest person on her tier, and it wasn’t long before she was sexually assaulted by an older woman. Afterward, she was able to convince prison administrators to transfer her to a psychiatric facility with a program for young girls. One of the other girls in the program was Felicia Pearson, who went on to portray the character Snoop in The Wire.
Claudia spent six years total in prison, released at age 20 just after the year 2000. When she became pregnant a few years later, she decided she had to get her life together, starting with her immigration status. She’d overstayed the tourist visa issued to her when she was an infant, but the fact that she was undocumented hadn’t been flagged when she was sent to prison. She’d lived in the US for so long that, naively, she thought that getting her status adjusted would be as easy as filing the paperwork. Every formative experience in her life had taken place in America—what was she if not American?
A few weeks after sending in her application, she got a phone call from her probation officer about the day’s appointment. He sounded a little strange, suggesting that he come to visit her instead. She didn’t think much of it, brushing away her suspicion and saying she’d be in later. When she arrived in his office, though, he started to cry. “I thought I’d violated. I was like, What’s wrong?” Claudia recalled. Just then a woman walked out of an adjacent office, identifying herself as an immigration agent.
Claudia’s application had been flagged for a visa violation, but when immigration officers looked closer at her case they’d found the record of her conviction and prison sentence, arranging the sting at her probation appointment shortly afterward. “When they found out I had a criminal case, they ate that shit up,” Claudia said. “They were like, mandatory removal, period.” Sobbing, she was led out of the probation office in handcuffs and placed in a car waiting outside.
Claudia was detained in a nearby prison, three months pregnant. “I was locked up for most of my pregnancy. Fighting, angry, suicidal. Just a lot of challenges,” she said. The baby—a girl—was born frail and undersized. Claudia’s grandmother took her in, hiding the child from orderlies at her assisted living facility for as long as she could. Choiceless, Claudia eventually agreed to put her newborn daughter up for adoption. “The last day I saw her she was about six months old, kicking and chewing on a little play toy,” she remembered.
By then Claudia was exhausted and demoralized. “I said, Grandma, I can’t do this anymore. People on the tier are beating me up, I’m fighting every day.” So she signed a voluntary departure agreement— much like the one offered to Nora—and a few weeks later she boarded a flight to Sierra Leone, a country she hadn’t seen since she was two, not far off from the age her daughter was now.
Claudia didn’t know what would be in store for her in Sierra Leone. It had been over two decades since she’d left the US. While she’d been imprisoned, Sierra Leone had suffered through a brutal war. She flew on a commercial flight, supervised by a US marshal, and she remembers being struck by the eerie calm at the Brussels airport, where she spent a brief layover that felt like a waiting room for whatever was coming next. But when her flight touched down outside of Freetown, she collapsed psychologically. “I just started thinking like, where could I go to kill myself,” she recalled. “I could do it in the bathroom, I could do it in the plane.”
But she managed to walk into the terminal, where she was met by a relative who earned money by shuttling travelers from the airport to Freetown on a hovercraft. The pair set out into the bay toward the small city. The sun was setting, spilling a crimson and purple glow onto the surrounding hills as the boat skimmed across the glittering bay. “It was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever been in,” she said. It was the first soft moment in months, and she felt a twinge of hope about what her new life might bring.
But it didn’t last. She moved in with a brother she barely knew, who resented his relatives for neglecting him after they left for the US. “The worst thing a deportee can do is live with family they don’t know, because you become an asset,” she said. “They need the money, so they suppress you and hide your communication.” Claudia’s grandmother sent small sums of money from her Social Security check every month, but her brother would often steal it and beat her when she protested.
Most Sierra Leoneans were hospitable. They called her “JC”—Just Came—inviting her to drink and dance with them in local nightclubs. There was none of the stigma that she’d later encounter in Liberia. But eventually she grew tired of the abuse she’d been suffering at the hands of her brother, so she left home yet again, traveling across the border to neighboring Liberia to look for her mother, who’d grown up in a small village there. It was 2007 then, and Liberia was still recovering from a 13-year civil war that had left nearly 250,000 people dead.
Hearing her accent, a khaki-clad immigration officer sized her up. “You think this is America here?” he asked her, pointing to her jean shorts. “We don’t want short trousers.” He refused to allow her to cross until she changed into jeans. “Right there I knew they didn’t like people who came from America,” she said. In the taxi, a man looked at her and asked whether she was a “deportee.” “I was like, What the fuck is a deportee? All the time in Sierra Leone, nobody talked about that.”
Liberia has a complicated relationship with Americans. For the first 140 years of its history, the descendants of its American founders ruled over clans and tribes from the coastline and inner forests. Resentment at this hierarchy boiled over in 1980, when an indigenous soldier took power in a coup that marked the first steps toward war. As the old order cracked, years of frustration over the exclusionary dynamics of one-party rule at the hands of Liberia’s American-rooted elite sent the country into a spiraling inferno of retributive violence and ethno-political bloodshed.
For all its horror, the experience of war can transmute a nation’s psyche, and Liberian society is different now, as new social fractures have emerged to partially replace those of the past. But bitterness toward ‘Americo-Liberians,’ often typecast as elitist and privileged, is still common. It’s a complex sentiment, fueled by frustration over poverty, shame at the quality of education in Liberia, and envy of the advantages that connections to America bestow in an economy dominated by foreigners.
The other side of Liberians’ perception of America is that it can represent an almost mythical realm, a gleaming fantasy awash in opportunity and wealth. The reality of life in the US, with its indifferent callousness and the hostility so many of its institutions display towards immigrants, doesn’t typically factor into this vision. The allure of escape is just too strong. Liberians are proud, but the truth is that their country is harsh and opportunities are scarce. The notion of America as a land of abundance and comfort in comparison may be incomplete, but it’s also not entirely wrong.
“Deportees”—the colloquial word for people ejected from their lives abroad—are trapped in between these two ideas of America. The inadequacy that Liberians are made to feel by their country’s position in the global order can breed resentment toward those with American accents, made worse by disgust at the recklessness and arrogance that it’s assumed lies behind their blown chance at a better life. For those who arrive in Liberia on the heels of a criminal conviction or prison sentence, the reception is cold—even hostile.
“As bad as it sounds, someone told me that once a Liberian knows you a deportee, they will hate you for life,” said one Liberian man. He was deported from Minneapolis in 2010 for robbing a motel with a fake handgun when he was in his late 20s. “But secretly. They will never tell you. You only find out when you get broke, then they wait for it and say, you dirty dog. Look at you now.”
Francis Kollie, a Liberian prisoners’ rights advocate, once saw a crowd gather around a group of recent deportees to throw stones at them and hurl insults. “The mindset is, America is my heaven, so I will do everything I can to get there,” he said. “If you were deported from that safe haven, it means to some extent according to the cultural belief that you are useless.” Upon arrival, deportees are sequestered in lockup at immigration facilities until a relative or acquaintance can sign for them. Those who do not have those connections can be imprisoned indefinitely. If mental illness played a role in their path to deportation, there are few options and their conditions often worsen.
Some deportees have stories of people they arrived with who fell in with bad crowds and, in over their heads, were killed by their new “friends.” Others, defeated and alone, commit suicide. One deportee, speaking to a reporter for a Liberian daily in 2015, described experiences that would be familiar to many of her peers: “Nobody knows why I’m back nor what I’ve gained since being in America. All they care about is that I’m a deportee who messed up. It’s stigmatizing. I can’t get anything because I speak [American English]. We are so hated and divided and because of that, our lives are destroyed out here.”
In Monrovia, deportees often congregate at Miami Beach, a windswept open-air bar that lies on a stretch of coastline near the city center. Underneath brightly colored parasols, Liberians drink beer and local gin cocktails with their feet in the sand while Afrobeat and dancehall crackle from towering speakers. On one edge of the beach is a small, two-story tin-and-lumber shack. Inside, paintings of Haile Selassie hang beside pictures of Kwame Nkrumah and other pan-Africanist icons. The shack is owned by J-Black, a former Harlemite who was a foot soldier in a crew run by New York kingpin Rich Porter before he was deported in 2003 for a cocaine charge. He and Claudia serve as informal greeters for new deportees, offering hard-earned knowledge about safety, “the system,” and what it means to be Liberian.
Her long, dark dreads swaying slightly in the evening breeze sweeping in over the Atlantic, Claudia sat on a bench behind the shack and recalled her first years in Liberia. “I came here pregnant,” she said. “I was really sick, and where I lived the people didn’t take care of me. I just laid on the ground. They didn’t cook for me, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything.” She’d rented a room in a tightly packed Monrovia slum and was hoping to track down her mother, but she didn’t have any luck. She had no family in Liberia, and no support. As her due date approached, she became sick with cholera.
At the hospital, they told her they would have to perform a cesarean section to deliver the baby, and the chances of it surviving were slim. But the operation was a success, and her son JJ was born. She was destitute, though, and could barely generate breast milk for the child, as most days all she could afford to eat was puttah, a cookie made from mud and vegetable oil. Desperate, she redoubled her effort to find her mother, printing an ad in the Daily Observer, a local newspaper, that asked anyone who knew her to contact Claudia.
The editor of the paper took notice of Claudia’s condition and, hearing her accent, asked if she could proofread an article. She tried, but failed badly. Still, the paper began to assign her the occasional typing job, paying her small sums of cash. It wasn’t enough, and Claudia became homeless along with her young son. One day she showed up to the newsroom, filthy and penniless. The editor who had first noticed her saw how dire her situation had become, and in an act of supreme kindness, he pulled out $200 US—a sizeable sum in Liberia—and told her to find an apartment. Claudia started crying.
Over the next months, she devoured how-to articles online about journalism, slowly teaching herself the basics of reporting and newswriting. The Observer eventually decided to give her a chance, offering her an entry-level job in the newsroom. The editors were harsh, ruthlessly critiquing every article she filed. “They had me going home crying, really frustrated,” she said. “But they always encouraged me.” Claudia discovered that her painful past served as an asset to her as a reporter, allowing her to connect with victims of sexual abuse and the marginalized urban poor who were often the subjects of her stories. In the wake of a feature investigation she wrote about female genital mutilation, the paper named her its “women’s columnist,” a role she still holds today.
The path that lead Claudia toward the life she now lives in Liberia began before she was old enough to attend high school. The environment she grew up in, a criminal justice system that treated her as a “superpredator” rather than a traumatized child, and the uncompromising cruelty of immigration enforcement in America wove together into a trap, stripping her identity away and forcing her to create a new one halfway across the world. The resilience and strength she displayed in doing so is nearly unfathomable, but she was also lucky. Without the support of her colleagues, Claudia might have ended up like so many other deportees, falling through the cracks of a society that never quite became home. Along the highways and roads around Monrovia, it’s common to see shirtless men, covered in dust, filling potholes with gravel and begging drivers for small sums of cash in return. Some were once our neighbors in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Atlanta.
Deportees often speak of the fear and despair they felt when they arrived, shipwrecked in unfamiliarity and drifting like ghosts in a halfway realm where they weren’t American anymore, but neither were they quite Liberian. Deportation is often a kind of existential crisis, as much about sense of self as livelihood or physical safety, and survival can require alchemical changes to the very core of one’s being. Not everyone is capable of remaining intact through that journey, instead collapsing under the weight of alienation and loss. Their stories are rarely told, and thus the realms that lie beyond ICE detention centers and DHS courtrooms remain obscure to us, just as those who built them want it.
For Claudia, survival is bittersweet. She still thinks about the daughter she gave birth to in detention often. Now 14, the girl lives in Utah with the family that adopted her, and the two have never spoken. Claudia has heard she’s doing well, and she’s grateful for that, but when she speaks about her daughter, tears well up in her eyes. “It’s so important for me to remain a changed person,” she said. “If she’s as smart as they tell me, she’s going to see what I did, and what I’m doing now. She needs to know I’m not a bad person.”
Claudia and Nora have different stories, but they share a crucial detail—the criminal justice system led both of them into deportation hearings. This is because in America, every facet of law enforcement serves as a feeder for the bureaucracies that tear immigrants away from their families and communities. As Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, explained, “Their main way of finding people is through the criminal justice system, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only finding so-called ‘criminal aliens,’ it means that you’re finding anyone who’s had some contact with that system.”
The political rhetoric surrounding this pipeline, in all its crude sensationalism, intentionally obscures the reality of who is being deported and why. The Trump administration has kicked this deception into overdrive, dangling the menacing specter of MS-13 in front of the country to advance the false notion that immigrants with criminal records are violent “animals” rather than the people with drug or fraud convictions they usually are. But however they might now wish to present themselves today, Democrats historically haven’t been much better. In 2014, for example, Barack Obama announced his administration’s intention to deport “felons, not families.” The problem, as Long puts it, was “that ignored that felons have families, and that felonies are too easily handed out on racialized grounds.”
One danger of the fake crisis being manufactured by the right wing over immigration is that past mistakes will be repeated as pressure builds to make compromises that render “bad” immigrants ever more disposable in order to protect “good” ones. Immigration advocates say that Obama’s harsh policy of aggressively enforcing deportation orders against people with criminal records was to an extent a result of similar pressure he faced during his time in office. “I think the idea with the Obama administration was, okay, if we sacrifice this group of people, maybe we can create a path to legalization or citizenship for this other group of people,” said Alisa Wellek, the executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project.
The rise of Donald Trump is a sign that those compromises don’t work. The thirst for terrorizing immigrants in America won’t be satiated by throwing red meat to the right wing, for whom the very presence of any immigrant, “criminal” or not, represents an existential threat to white ownership of the country. The dishonesty that frames the discourse around immigrants and crime is intentional, forcing bad-faith compromises meant to pave the way for more cruelty in service of increasingly open racist impulses. Claudia was technically deported for being undocumented, but she was almost certainly listed in the ledger as a “criminal” immigrant, with her experience growing up American casually flattened inside the maw of that label. And if Nora is sent to Liberia, ICE will place her into the same statistical pool when it celebrates its year-end accomplishments.
The wielding of criminality as a bludgeon against immigrants is intended to dehumanize them, making it easier for people like Claudia and Nora to be casually discarded. “I think advocates need to be saying things like ‘Nobody is the worst thing they’ve ever done’ and ‘Everyone makes mistakes,’ ” said Kade Crockford of the ACLU’s Massachusetts affiliate. “We have to recognize again that the disparities in the criminal legal system, with respect to black and brown folks being targeted for arrest and facing unjust consequences because of their race at every stage of the system, are also in place for immigrants.”
To that point, another core experience that Claudia and Nora share is their experience of growing up black in America. Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have their own dynamics, diverse within their communities and different in many ways from their black American neighbors. But in a country where skin color has long been tethered to the availability of resources and how one is treated by law enforcement, they have much in common as well. Park Hill and Southeast DC were both environments rife with danger for an immigrant, where the same forces that feed mass incarceration also feed its sibling, mass deportation. One outside a courtroom and the other inside a probation office, Nora and Claudia both found themselves caught at the nexus of these two channels of institutional violence, demonstrating how an immigrant with black skin lives at the apex of danger in America.
Back in Park Hill a few weeks after Nora’s hearing at Varick Street, her daughters sat with Agatha in her small apartment, where the walls are adorned with memorabilia from Liberia along with framed photographs of her children. A yellowing portrait of Nora’s murdered older sister rests in a place of remembrance on a high shelf. On the television, President Trump was speaking. Somewhat inexplicably, Agatha remains a devoted supporter of his. “Those children go back to their homes in the Middle East, learn jihad, and come back here. We don’t even know what they’re doing over there,” she explained, scowling. One of her grandsons, in town for the weekend, laughed in the kitchen. “She just loves his bombast,” he said. “She likes people who speak their minds, you know what I mean. She’s one of those people.”
Nora’s youngest daughter sat on the couch, tapping her pink Nikes on the floor and trying to stream a Drake video from her phone onto the TV, much to Agatha’s irritation. “It’s so weird that my mom went to jail, because she’s nice to everyone,” she said. “When I first went to visit her, I was scared because I thought criminals would be there. She said she’s kind of scared of that place because they fight a lot.” As she and her sister waited for their father to take them to a matinee showing of Black Panther, she contemplated aloud the relative merits of career paths as either a rapper or a lawyer. Settling on the latter, she said, “I wish I was my mom’s lawyer.”
But fortunately for Nora, the lawyers she did have were experienced and tenacious, and early in March the family received good news. Nora had won a partial victory in her habeas corpus claim, and a federal judge had ordered her immediately released. The possibility of being deported still loomed, but she would be free while she fought her case. Perry McAninch, a member of her legal team, explained that without representation—which few other cities fund for immigrants—it would be hard to imagine her avoiding deportation. “She would have had to do a lot of legal research,” he said. “It took a lot of interviews with her and her family before I could wrap my head around what was going on and how she fit into it.”
A few days later, more than three months after she was first arrested by ICE, Nora returned home. Sitting in Agatha’s apartment, she looked worn down and anxious. “I’m angry, because I believe that I’m an American citizen,” she said, choking up. “This is my country, I’ve been here since I was a kid. I went to school here, I had children here. I shouldn’t have been where I was.” As she spoke about her childhood growing up in Park Hill and her fear of what her deportation might mean for her children, Agatha sat on a nearby couch, a sad expression on her face, her eyes cast down toward her hands.
The experience had taken a toll on Nora, and she had begun drinking heavily to cope with the stress. A few weeks later, she was admitted to a hospital with high blood pressure, where a doctor told her that if she’d waited longer she might have had a stroke. To make matters worse, ICE hadn’t informed her probation officer that she was in their custody. “This totally shattered her life,” McAninch said. “There were warrants out for her arrest and officers knocking on doors looking for her.” In late March she checked herself into an emergency psychiatric ward after having suicidal thoughts. Whether she is deported or not, Nora is living through a nightmare, and it won’t soon end.
“I’ve made so many mistakes in my life,” she said. “But right when I tried to correct everything and change my life, everything came falling down on me.”
McAninch and the rest of Nora’s legal team remain hopeful that their argument about her citizenship will be strong enough to persuade a federal judge to drop her case, but even if they win that battle, they’ll need to convince a separate court to issue her a naturalization certificate. Nora is encircled by a system that doesn’t care whether she is a rightful part of our American community, built instead for the express purpose of ejecting her from our midst. For now, she exists in a gray area, where identity and law are at odds, built on an exclusionary architecture of racism and violence. Whatever the outcome of her case, her ordeal is our national shame.