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April 06, 2021

I am a Former Refugee and Community Organizer. Here is What You Can Do as a Lawyer to Help Black Immigrant Communities.

Kayo Beshir works as a multicultural organizer at the Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Coalition in Nashville, TN.

Kayo Beshir works as a multicultural organizer at the Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Coalition in Nashville, TN.

In Black immigrant communities, there are only a handful of community advocates that have positions of influence to assist our community members. A small group of individuals become responsible for equipping themselves with knowledge and resources to support a large population, and it is difficult to find community resources, services, and spaces for our communities. When you are always on call as a volunteer to find resources for thousands across a state with very limited resources, it can lead to frustration and burnout among advocates.

For example, there is a legal desert when it comes to immigration attorneys in Tennessee, where I live and work. There are only a few organizations that provide legal services to immigrant communities in general.

Those organizations have mastered legal services and other complementary services for Latino and European immigrant communities, but not Black immigrants. When there are limited legal services in general, refugees and immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries encounter even more barriers to representation.  As a result, we have to work to remedy the problem.

There are two issues that commonly arise when it comes to legal services access for Black immigrant communities. First, within Black immigrant communities there is a lack of knowledge about where to access legal services and who can be trusted to provide competent services. There is also a lack of clarity and accessible information on which organizations provide which types of immigration assistance. Many Black immigrants in Tennessee are resettled refugees who had their first contact with a refugee resettlement agency like Catholic Charities when they arrived in the United States. In the absence of other legal services organizations, Catholic Charities is overwhelmed in its attempts to provide services where there are not many lawyers to address the needs of the Black immigrant community.

The second issue Black immigrants encounter is insufficient language access. Resources for immigrant communities focus on the large Spanish-speaking communities. Outreach methods should be as inclusive as possible. It is important to work with community leaders to determine the best methods and practices for outreach to communities whose languages are not traditionally included.

The problem is clear, but what is the solution? Legal services providers can start by printing their brochures in languages other than Spanish and distribute them to schools, community clinics, offices of state health and human services agencies, hospitals, libraries, and community centers. When attorneys and other service providers help, those who speak other languages and ensure sufficient resources to support adequate interpretation and translation services. This will inevitably lead to ensuring that low-income people are aware that the organization offers services in a language other than English.

Legal services organizations and law firms should also strive to offer services in a culturally competent manner to those who come from diverse cultures in their service areas and check the demographics of their client base. Is it predominantly one group? Are Black immigrants missing from your client base? The lack of public organizations in our communities is a big barrier to immigrants accessing justice, and justice is vital for our communities.

Concrete Ways to Act for Justice for Black Immigrants in your Community

There is a real need for legal services organizations to partner with leaders in the Black immigrant community who currently shoulder the work of addressing legal needs in the face of a critical lack of available services. We can begin to fix the problems with access to legal services if local and national legal services organizations step up to educate small community organizations and community members about resources available in their communities.

Regardless of where you are, there are concrete things you as a lawyer or a legal services provider can do to meaningfully partner in the movement for improved legal access for Black immigrants. Here are seven steps you can take:

  1. Identify and connect with leaders at organizations - including community centers and faith-based organizations - within Black immigrant community networks in your area. Work with these local grassroots groups who put pressure on different levels of government, and who understand when it is time to mobilize the community or make specific issues or cases public. Lawyers who want to be movement lawyers and to make impactful change must work with local community organizers. Organizers have already built a reputation and trust with communities to understand their needs.
  2. Partner with the community to develop and present needed “Know Your Rights” presentations and distribution of trusted legal referral lists.
  3. Deepen your understanding of the criminal legal system and how it disproportionately impacts Black folks, including Black immigrants. Question your assumptions as you learn more about the intersections of racism, policing, and immigration.
  4. Understand the role of impact litigation and make sure Black immigrant clients can see all the avenues available to push back against injustice.
  5. Diversify the language of your brochures, presentations, and other outreach materials to include languages of Black immigrant communities.
  6. Expand your pro bono services and develop more easily accessible information about pro bono services in your area.
  7. Advocate with your city government to create legal defense funds so that Black immigrants can be guaranteed representation by competent counsel in immigration processes even if they cannot afford an immigration attorney. Many Black immigrants are currently navigating the system without access to counsel.

Be a Partner, Not a Savior

Immigrants and refugees come from all parts of the world, speak multiple languages, and have very different needs. Furthermore, in immigrant communities, there is a lot of deference given to lawyers. Immigrants, even more than American-born folks, tend to think that lawyers have all the answers and that they should not question their lawyers. It can be very easy for well-meaning lawyers working with this population to come in and reinforce this power imbalance. Lawyers can come in, save the day, and have really good legal results but end up being very disempowering to the community. It is therefore really important for lawyers -- especially white lawyers -- who do movement work to think about how their interactions either support or fight against the current power structure that disproportionately and negatively impacts Black immigrants. If you do not know where to start or how to do this, you can always start by listening more and asking more questions. Listen to people with lived experiences. Then question and reflect on your institution’s practices with clients and your own privileges and biases. Above all, get in the practice of questioning yourself about your motivations as a lawyer, whether you are really listening to your clients, and how you can shift your role to not assume you always know the choices your clients should make in their cases.

We need more lawyers to be partners in the movement for justice for Black immigrants. But we need you to see the expertise our communities already have and join us as partners, not as saviors.

About the Author

Kayo Beshir was born in Bale, Oromia and lived in Kenya and Uganda before moving to the United States. A former refugee, he currently works as a multicultural organizer at the Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Coalition in Nashville, organizing immigrant communities from the Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, and Asia across the state and working to make Tennessee a more welcoming state for immigrant communities, through his organizing, advocacy and empowerment efforts.