How Do We Respond to the George Floyd Tragedy?

The past few weeks laid bare to all what African Americans endure in the United States. The brutal murder of George Floyd, caught on camera, at the hands of police officers employed by the “progressive” city of Minneapolis, is indisputable proof that racism and systemic discrimination is endemic. While others have delved into the root causes of a law enforcement system that allows other uniformed officers to stand around or even directly assist in the murder of a United States citizen, this post is intended to address what roles immigration attorneys can play to combat the racism and systematic discrimination prevalent in America.

Most immigration attorneys are aware of the bias of immigration laws in this country; in some cases, these biases fuel the system. It is the reason why immigration agents believe it is appropriate to humiliate poor or minority immigrants. It is a system where adjudicating officers will treat cases from certain parts of the world differently, or impose disproportionate burden on certain clients because of the color of their skin, the country they come from, the language they speak, the god they worship, or the person they love. Now more than ever, we are called upon to combat this racism and discrimination. Our commitment to justice and the rule of law can only be reconfirmed by how we treat people, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 speech entitled The Other America, warned us against the notion that only time will solve the problem of racial injustice. More than 50 years later, his observations are still pertinent to us. We cannot be patient anymore; we cannot wait for racial inequality and injustice to recede. We must be involved actors in the future we seek.

Attorneys are sometimes faced with the choice of either pursuing practical solutions for client cases or challenging the immigration system we see as discriminatory toward our clients. Sometimes these two goals are aligned. Other times, we have to bite our tongues, appearing nice or unoffended to make sure that our clients’ interests are served. The murder of George Floyd, however, makes it abundantly clear that these measured approaches serve only to exacerbate systems of oppression.

We must take action to dismantle these systems. Calling out the biases of an immigration judge, adjudicator, or agent of our government will serve our clients and our institutions better. Creating an uproar at an immigration interview or in immigration court because of how a client is mistreated should be an option.  And to my fellow Black men living in America, I say we have become fearful and have had to suppress our anger to meet racially bounded categories of professionalism; it is time to raise our voices in protest and convey our anger. Because if we do not, we are complicit in allowing others to be mistreated.

The system we operate under is messed up; it is discriminatory, and we should not enable it! Some of our clients – businesses and individuals – believe that the race of the attorney they hire could impact their case. As immigration attorneys, do we enable such thinking? As African American immigration attorneys, it is sometimes clear to us that our race impacts how our cases are adjudicated. And for those who practice business immigration, we have come to accept that some business opportunities elude us because of our race. And no, this has nothing to do with competency; it has everything to do with systemic racism.

We should have an entity to which we can report instances of observed discriminatory practices. Making reports of these biases to an entity that keeps track of these institutional failings will serve all of us better in the long run. It is difficult to change what we cannot measure or quantify. For too long, no one kept track of the number of police killings in the United States until The Washington Post started doing so in 2015.  The jarring numbers from the database galvanized concerned policymakers to start thinking of solutions. Likewise, as attorneys, we should document and publicly share instances of biases we observe in our cases, and identify the offices and officials involved. Such efforts will force change.

At the individual level, we have responsibilities to combat racism in our respective practices and offices. It is not the responsibility of other people: we are all involved. We should periodically evaluate how many minorities we have hired in our respective firms. While it is good to have minorities as paying clients, we must engage them as employees, vendors, or service providers. I am not just referring to the janitors who come after hours to clean our offices. The most empowering efforts we can make are to recognize the talent and skills minorities bring to the workplace. and help them gain additional skills so they can support themselves and their families. It is commendable that some made donations to organizations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, but that does not address the institutional challenges we have. So my challenge to you and all my colleagues is this: are you fine with only hiring people that look like you, or are you willing to step out of your comfort zone? Are you helping alleviate systemic racism, or are you abetting it?

These are hard questions. As many experts have shared recently however, feeling uncomfortable is not bad. Feeling uncomfortable is something you should lean in to, because otherwise we are allowing the status quo to continue. And the status quo led to George Floyd’s death. We have to do better.


AILA members – a discussion that may be of interest: Recapture Your Purpose as an Attorney by Defining Your Practice Values

by Paschal O. Nwokocha