Volume 55, Number 2 Spring 2022

Immigrant Justice

Edited by Moshood Olanrewaju

Call for Reimagination: An Analysis of the Black Migrant Experience

Written by Moshood Olanrewaju and Brad Olson. National Louis University

It is common knowledge that the migrant population in the United States will increase triple-fold in the coming years; migrants will continue to travel from the global south, headed to the global north. This paper is a call to action for community psychologists to get in front of the systemic injustice faced by many future black migrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere as they interact and navigate through multiple societies. The first author, wearing two hats here, is a black migrant from Nigeria and a community psychologist. Thus, this textual appeal to reimagine the science of immigration with fellow colleagues is a personal endeavor. 

Introduction to the problem

When migrants arrive in the societies of the global north, they are no longer seen as from Brazil, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, or Venezuela. Politically, they are grouped together and described as Black migrants. Such a singular identification mixes the sociocultural differences of Africans with those who have Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Asian, and Afro-Latinx backgrounds. The mixture unfortunately too often creates a disconnect between Black migrants' narratives of self, and their new society's approach to integration and acculturation. Many migrants are disenfranchised; we have witnessed many instances where qualified Black migrants are passed over and opportunities are instead given to less-experienced others. Too often interventions try to help by building individual migrant "coping and adjustment" strategies, but when the system is dysfunctional migrants are set up for helpless and hopelessness.

Constantly living in fear of the unknown, Black migrants can often become emotionally detached from thinking critically. As any human being would, they can be led to feel defeated and end up conforming to unjust power in the face of compounding harms. Nonetheless, many migrants still attempt to forge ingroup membership in their new society and enhance that US identity by disassociating with other migrants. The problem with disassociation is the loss of sense of community and social and cultural capital among Black migrants. All social species, including humans, have an inherent need to feel connected to others and feel like we belong. Our shared stories underlie our cognitive and emotional life, as agents of memory (Bower & Clark, 1969), emotion (Lazarus & Alfert, 1964; Lazarus et al., 1962), and meaning (Bruner, 1990).

 We need radical re-imagination for black immigrants in the United States. What does it mean to re-imagine? This question invokes a sense of urgency that can only be processed through silence and then reflection until it provokes action. How we go about doing this is a question we present to activist, critical community psychologists.

As a community psychologist, to re-imagine, we will need to question power in an unfriendly and unfamiliar terrain. To question power, together with others, while we still have breath, we will need to make some public proclamation. We must realize that the continuous destabilization of migrants’ homelands is why most have arrived here in the US, the treacherous journey they made here, the families they left behind. If one is unfamiliar with the compassion needed, look up the unforgettable image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on a beach. We need such recognition and sensations to know we must re-imagine the praxis of (and reception of) immigration

Factors Contributing to Black Migrants Movement

Before addressing the problems above, let’s examine the fundamental elements of why Black migrants are constantly on the move. It is important to re-affirm a distinction here: Not all Black migrants are migrating from the African continent. According to first-ever Africa Migration Report (IOM, 2019): 

  • Most African migrants are not crossing oceans, but rather crossing land borders within Africa. 
  • 94% of African migration across oceans occurs through regular bureaucratic channels. 
  • Africa accounts for 14% of the global migrant population compared to 41% from Asia and 24% from Europe. 
  • 80% of Africans considering migration have little interest in leaving the continent.  

These numbers appear contradictory to the ever-massaged dominant narrative of irregular migration out of Africa. The migratory experience of displaced Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Asian, and Afro-Latinx peoples follows a similar pattern as those from continental Africa.

Black migrants from Africa, including the first author, have made it clear through post-integration social participation that we are not here in the United States asking for handouts. As soon as we arrive, many of us are ready on day one to contribute to the socio-economic development of the United States by proudly taking on the most menial jobs. This is not because we are not unqualified to apply for white-collar jobs, but many of us understand that reality is stacked against us. Yet our dedication is bigger than the mountains of stacked-up odds. Many of us are living for others who are left behind. Their continued survival depends on ours. They are counting on us to succeed. So, when record numbers of uneven policies set some of us miles back, we sometimes take as many as three jobs to keep a roof over our families’ heads. Regardless, the “blood is thicker than water” bond makes us accountable to our community back home. We save up to support families and friends financially: send money, export used cars for them to resell, engage in “okrika trading” (buy and sell used clothes and shoes), and partake in many other enterprises to keep them and ourselves financially afloat. The stories embedded in the African migrant experience reflect complex sub-regional, regional, and cross-regional aspirations that people hold as they search for a vastly better society. 

The focus on colonial profitability led the old powers to diplomatically organize the Berlin Conference 1884-1885 (Congo or West Africa Conference). The primary goal was to avoid regional conflict that might threaten colonial resources. The future of the colonized people was never considered. The conference created a set of arbitrary borders that fractured tribal connections. The bigger the nation, the more colonial powers perniciously segregated the people. The Yoruba nation of Nigeria, for instance, with a population of more than 45 million people, were split between English Nigeria and other French-speaking Yoruba in the rest of West Africa. Directly across the north, the Hausa-Fulani nation, with a population of more than 75 million, were divided along the same lines. The Hausa-Fulani people fell both in the nation of Niger and lumped into modern-day Nigeria alongside the Igbo, another tribe of around 49 million people. 

Ethnic conflict among small, crammed-together tribes always leads to massive displacement. Much of these arbitrary colonial divides occurred throughout the continent. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 32 million Africans are either internally displaced refugees or asylum seekers in other African countries. Displacement in the West African nations is due to years of political and diplomatic neglect, ineffective conflict resolution, exacerbation of Boko Haram-like attacks, and deadly climate-related crises. The people of the mineral-rich continent have been socio-politically homeless since the Berlin Conference.

Life is hard and difficult in the large and sparsely populated Sahara territories (northern and eastern regions)—some of the areas are labeled as uninhabited. Many people head to the Great Lake region (western, central, and southern regions), which has become overcrowded. We can begin to relate to the factors pushing people to migrate and why the point of entry and destination path varies. The process to “travel out” through legal avenues takes somewhere between 3-15 years and costs fortunes, of which most displaced individuals can only dream. To make matters worse, many families lost their life savings as visas are intentionally and punitively withheld by those in power. Many others are forced into unusual methods of irregular migration. All of these points fortify the need to constantly retell the story that is largely about inter-African migration. This reality of inter-African migration comes into direct conflict with the horrific, sensationalized European narrative of irregular African migration across the Mediterranean. 

For the record number of African migrants—fleeing the political violence of endless wars and famine and drought attributable to climate change—there are limited pathways to Europe. Each one is as dangerous as the next. For many displaced Nigerians (including those moving voluntarily), Congolese (some from escaping the overcrowded Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania), Tigrayans of Ethiopia, and Eritreans running from Tigray Peoples Liberation Front and the Ethiopian military, the humanitarian consequences are great. For example, many displaced Africans attempt to reach the global north through Libya, trekking through the Sahara Desert or Melilla in Morocco, which many see as the most treacherous pathway. The Moroccan military and police are sanctioned, trained, and equipped to use deadly force to fend away unwanted migrants trying to make the crossing. In return, Morocco’s government receives, from Europe, incentives as an Advanced Status Partnership, which includes economic, trade, and political benefits involved in security and development (EU-Morocco Mobility Partnership, 2013).

Little is worse than the relationship between the EU and Libya in terms of the criminalization of migrants. The situation is one which Léonard (2010) referred to as the “extreme politicization of migration.” The most serious human rights concerns began when the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi adopted legislation declaring that people arriving in Libya without valid travel authorizations would be deemed “illegal migrants” and must be locked up in detention centers (Refugees International, 2017; UNHR and UNSMIL, 2016). Libya was never party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic procedures for considering asylum claims. Despite Libya’s political instability, a deal between Italy and Libya was endorsed by the EU in its Malta Declaration (Council of the European Union, 2017). The consequence of bilateral cooperation has led to the most irredeemable forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Currently, Italian financial and technical support allows the Libyan Navy and Coast Guards to intercept migrant boats in Libyan territorial waters. Migrants are then forcefully returned to detention facilities in Libya (Memorandum of Understanding, February 2017). Thus, Italy’s financial support to Libya has grown from approximately $30 million in 2008 to $327.9 million today (Merelli, 2017). The split between political power and several rival governments in post-Gadhafi Libya makes it difficult to establish an independent monitoring mechanism to access the true nature of the ongoing human rights abuses. Migrants are often beaten, robbed, and raped before being taken to the detention centers (Amnesty International, 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2017; UNHR & UNSMIL, 2016; Toaldo, 2017). 

Within detention, the inhumane conditions are severe with overcrowded and unsanitary facilities (UNHR and UNSMIL, 2016). Immigration detainees are regularly subjected to torture, harassment, physical violence, sexual exploitation, and forced labor. There is no formal registration, no legal process, no access to lawyers or any judicial authorities (Andrijasevic, 2006; Human Rights Watch, 2014; Peaceworks, 2016;). These violations have been verified in a video by CNN and AP News as far back 2015, including “people for sale” and extrajudicial killings by state security for sport. Other video confirms that migrants have been captured and dismembered to what is called the organ harvest trade (i.e., the buying and reselling of human organs). The EU policy ends up forcing migrants to stay in locations that threaten their well-being in every way. The EU nevertheless increasingly justifies these policies as ways to reduce the number of deaths at sea and to combat human trafficking (Archbold, 2015). The EU’s real goal, however, is to keep these migrants out of Europe. 

Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment through government interventions defeat the purpose (and violate the treaties) associated with the 1951 creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—which was to oversee states’ implementation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Office and the Convention were designed to ensure that people who cannot obtain access or resources to their most basic rights within their country of origin. They would therefore have the right to flee their own country and seek access to those rights in another country (Haddad, 2008; Loescher, 2001). These failures of policy make most conscious observers question the humanitarian nature of U.S. government and NGO efforts to not resettle but deport Haitian migrants. There is an endless list of mistreatments accorded to Haitian nationals by U.S. authorities. 

For reasons both intentional and complacent actions America's most powerful agencies contribute to some of the world's worst forms of violence and corruption. For instance, the CDC followed the Trump Administration, blocking migrants from applying for asylum under the name of Title 42. This represents another chapter in the nation’s dark history, resulting in incalculable suffering of hundreds of thousands of migrants. The perversion of a medical agency to support racist agendas is unsupportable. It has inflicted suffering on otherwise maligned populations, erected impenetrable barriers to lawful asylum, and forced Black migrants back to countries where many would undoubtedly perish. These outcomes reflect a culture of coloniality wherein communities of color are continuously viewed as the other, discriminated against, and are repeatedly subjected to dehumanizing treatment (Dutt et al. 2021)

Psychological Sense of Community: The Importance of Human Membership

Seymour Sarason, who developed the concept of a Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC), was an intellectual described by Julian Rappaport as a "hero in our community of scholars." Rappaport has argued that PSOC can be indexed by its shared stories; that people who hold common stories about where they come from, who they are, and who they will, or want to be, are a community. Utilizing the important ideas of PSOC, narrative, and settings, community psychologists today can re-imagine better alternatives at every level of the global north and global south’s immigration system. It is worth re-imagining Black migrants’ experiences through the lens of a community with shared and often unheard stories that need amplifying. 

McMillan and Chavis (1986) referred to PSOC as a set of criteria relating to community development, including stimulating opportunities for membership so that people can have interdependent positive influence over their community, having needs met, and developing and sharing emotional ties and support. Processing PSOC through an African concept of inclusivity, which is referred to by the phrase: “Agba merin ni selu—Omode, Obrin Okunrin ati Alejo.” In English, four groups of experienced people should always run the affairs of the state: Experienced indigenous women, experienced indigenous men, experienced youth, and experienced non-indigenous people. 

The Agba merin ni selu challenges the imperious colonial stance of hierarchy and homogeneity with a genuine PSOC. Such an expanded version would be powered by membership alliances from state actors, NGOs, civil society groups, policymakers, humanitarian and immigration scholars, as well as from grassroots citizens working for change. This is one way a community defines itself and makes it available to its member's new possible selves. Not all U.S. policy is bad. There are some pockets of strength. For instance, there are welcoming cities in the U.S. that are positioned, through authentic membership, and have put out offerings to build peaceful bridges. 

Community Psychologist role as Town Crier  

The character of the Town Crier, who makes public announcements in the street, occupies a critical position in African society. The town crier provides necessary information and directions to the people in communicating across social boundaries. Reliable communication is essential to a community. In Africa, the Yoruba Orisha Okó is a deity or oracle of agriculture. During planting seasons, Orisha Okó dictates limited movement on farmlands to avoid disrupting the soil, allowing for a natural absorption circle between land and planted seeds. From the oracle’s warning, the role of the Town Crier is to pass on this message. Multiple town criers are dispatched to the community-at-large. The Town Criers, much like community psychologists, have competencies, metrics, and measures. They utilize these tools to assess and lend their voices to increase community health and well-being. While social media has taken on some of the Town Crier’s roles, the practice is still prevalent in some traditional towns and villages in Africa and some parts of the Caribbean (Yahaya & Badru, 2002; Ogwezzy, 2008). Much like the Town Crier, we community psychologists must speak to the harms we know exist. We don’t speak for kings or deities but for the people and their stories, their decisions, their human rights, and livelihood. We are boundary spanners and need to be more effective influencers of public opinion and equally speak truth to power. Community psychologists are needed to tackle one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century: The migration and displacement crisis.

With Black migrants, and within the US and other communities, we need to help reimagine a different experience for Black migrants. We need, for and with these communities on the move and other distressed populations, to form new sustainable sanctuaries for those arriving in our shared communities, in transit, in place, and as communities of return. Community psychologists are needed at the forefront of the politics of immigration to co-implement transformative policies:

  • Where undocumented workers have always been treated poorly, suffered wide-ranging exploitation, subjected to raids and arrests, deterred from organizing.
  • Where refugees with professional education to practice arrived and cannot get a decent job—professional re-credentialing. 
  • Where we boldly and directly speak to the harms caused by multinational corporations as they unceremoniously occupy and consume resources belonging to indigenous people: lands, waters, and other precious mineral resources. 
  • Where clear pathways to citizenship are prioritized for the millions of hardworking individuals 
  • Where help in local and national refugee-migrant service agencies develop policies that are co-designed by black and other migrants and that are therefore truly empowering. 
  • Where we financially advocate on behalf of the localized organization with direct access to the “community on the move” and those caught in-between regional conflicts. 

While there are no one-size-fits-all methods to meet the listed goals, extensive multilevel development assistance, if done in the right ways, can enhance the efforts of humanitarian institutions. Community psychologists can help create more strategic approaches that focus on development, through system evaluation, uncovering truths, abiding by our deepest values, and engaging in transformative action. Our hope is that community psychology’s increased involvement will vastly transform the immigrant psychological experience, and therefore experiences of all people in the world. 


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