Deborah Alemu is the Organizing Director at the UndocuBlack Network, a grantee of Borealis Philanthropy’s Black-led Movement Fund. The UndocuBlack Network’s mission is twofold: 1) to “Blackify” this country’s understanding of the undocumented population and 2) to facilitate access to resources for the Black undocumented community. Their vision is to have truly inclusive immigrant rights and racial justice movements that advocate for the rights of Black undocumented individuals, provide healing spaces, and kinship to those with intersecting identities.
Read our interview with Deborah about what inspires her in her work, what deportation defense organizing looks like, and her challenge to funders:
What brings you to your work with the UndocuBlack Network? What sustains you?
I am Ethiopian and I grew up in Texas after my family, who were asylees in Europe, decided they wanted to raise their family in the United States. So, I didn’t know this my whole life, but I was undocumented.
We fell out of status after some really self-serving lawyers took our money and ran. I was enrolled for a class my senior year to get paramedic credentials, and then on the first day of class they told us it was cancelled because four out of six people signed up didn’t have a valid social security number. That was a huge eye opener for me.
It was these experiences that led me to organize in college with a group called University Leadership Initiative. The purpose was to build undocumented leadership so that we could challenge the university to be more accommodating and welcoming to students like us. Each undocumented student went through our orientation that we facilitated.
That’s what sustains me to this day – there is so much work to be done, but when you build leadership and not only provide services then it’s like growing extra limbs; your capacity expands. It’s not just your two arms and your one brain that has to fix all the injustices, you’re bringing more leaders into the mix who have the same skills and know how to share the same resources and can utilize organizing as an effective means of change.
Moving on from campus organizing, I realized that all of the convenings I got to participate in were very non-Black. Even though I was always doing immigrant rights organizing, some of these spaces were hostile – a lot of the national spaces we were in were anti-Black and didn’t acknowledge Black immigrants. When I had opportunity in 2015 to work on a convening for Black immigrants with UndocuBlack – I was like, “anything I can do to help.” That’s what led to my organizing work with them. What sustains me is building leadership and having a leaderful movement.
What’s a recent organizing win that you feel proud of?
Sadat Ibrahim was detained in the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall; he’s been detained in different facilities for almost three years. Originally from Ghana, he had to flee after a vigilante group that persecutes queer people started to attack and infiltrate his friend group. He eventually presented himself as an asylee at a checkpoint in California. He was physically, mentally, emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused in detention by guards and there were many moments over the three years where he was almost deported.
Because of rapid response we were able to bring attention to his case and divert his detention.
We put out calls for folks to make strategic calls, we did our research, found out what to say and who to say it to, what number to call, and what email to use. Our petition for his release got over 30,000 signatures. Whether it was speaking to politicians or at rallies and conferences, we told his story again and again, because it’s a common one. We know that there are hundreds like Sadat who are fleeing their home country for fear of their lives.
About three weeks ago, we got word that he was up for parole, and we needed to post a $10,000 bond. An anonymous donor gave that money and I was able to go and pick him up the next day.
Can you tell me more about your deportation defense work right now? What does that look like?
We look at deportation defense as two parts –the proactive side, which is composed of educating people on their rights, doing trainings for how to start and end a grassroots campaign, how to represent people without a lawyer, how to do fundraising. The other part of the equation is reactive – the actual grassroots campaigns you have to execute to release someone from detention, the fundraising that goes on, finding legal resources and legal aid.
Currently we have 12 active deportation defense cases. Some people have lawyers, others don’t. We’re building relationships with lawyers, with the people in deportation proceedings, with family and friends, we’re getting to know their very unique cases, who are their deportation officers, what state they are in, etc.
What should funders be doing to support lasting, systemic social change?
My challenge to funders would be we need to create alternative systems to what exists in the United States. I challenge funders to not just be comfortable with the formats and templates that have been tried and tested. It’s time to start building what’s going to sustain the working class in the United States because we are unable to meet the economic, educational, and political needs of the working class, which obviously includes Black undocumented immigrants.
Creating alternatives means trusting that good leadership will build sustainable movements.
Looking ahead to the next year – what are you most excited about in your work?
I’m most excited about a moment when we have trained enough of our membership to where they can lead deportation campaigns in their local area. This movement needs to be leaderful – I don’t think you can have the one expert who is the attorney. We need a broad network with varying skills. It needs to involve people who have been in detention and deportation. I’m hoping that when people feel like they’ve landed back on their feet, they can lend support to others in deportation. That’s how this work becomes sustainable. Next year, I can see Sadat and others actively participating in supporting other people in detention. I look forward to that.