Straight from the Underground: African Americans, Latinx and ‘Illegal’ Border Crossings

May 28, 2016
10:32 AM
From William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.

From William Still’s 1872 book The Underground Railroad.

Much has been made in mainstream media of a supposed rivalry between African Americans and Latinx, particularly over immigration. The conventional narrative is that African Americans oppose undocumented immigrants because they allegedly take away employment opportunities. There are indeed some who have been influenced by media who inundates us with this idea that there is discord between the groups. However, most African Americans clearly see through this attempt to divide people of color.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has tried to capitalize on these supposed divisions. His latest poll numbers with African Americans would confirm that his divisive message is not resonating.

African Americans understand that the primary obstacle they face in terms of employment is institutional racism. During the moments when African American unemployment was highest, undocumented immigration was comparatively low. Further, the challenges African Americans face in the labor market are beyond low wage, unskilled jobs. Black American college graduates have an unemployment rate of 12.4%, as opposed to 5.6% for other college graduates. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 70% of “non-Hispanic Blacks” support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, as opposed to 62% of whites.


The source of the tension that does exist are cultural misunderstandings and anti-Blackness which some Latinx immigrants carrying with them from their countries of origin (including some Afro-Latinos).

For those remaining African Americans who disagree with amnesty for undocumented immigrants because they are “breaking the law,” they must consider that Black Americans have a proud legacy of undocumented migration. The brilliant DC-based poet Bomani Armah once stated that any African American who doesn’t support undocumented people doesn’t know history.

In case you haven’t been watching the fantastic television show “Underground,” you should know that slaves on the Underground Railroad ran across borders without “legal” documents in order to attain better lives for themselves and their families. Slaves were not citizens and the Mason-Dixon line was a socially constructed border. The Fugitive Slave Act empowered slave catchers to apprehend runaways anywhere, similar to how anti-immigrant legislation in states like Alabama and Arizona give immigration enforcement authority to local law enforcement.

Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 bill in the coming years. As a nation we are bestowing her with the honor that is generally only reserved for presidents and founders of the republic. It is declaration that we stand for what she fought for: freedom, liberty, and risking everything to assist others.


Tubman was arguably our greatest and bravest American, and she started out as undocumented migrant. I am not making a comparison between the conditions of slavery and those of undocumented people in the U.S. or even in their home countries. I am stating a fact that American Blacks have a legacy of not having documents and having their travel restricted by socially constructed borders.

Crossing borders is as American as cherry pie.


Jason Nichols is an academic and artist with a range of interests, which include Black masculinities, hip-hop music and dance, bullying amongst emerging adults, and Black and Latino identities and relations. He is a full-time lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland-College Park and the current editor-in-chief of  Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies. Dr. Nichols is also a rap artist who raps under the moniker Haysoos and is one half of the internationally recognized rap group Wade Waters.