Why Immigration Reform Is Part of the Civil Rights Struggle

PHOTO: Rev. Al Sharpton, right, and Martin Luther King III meet with reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, after arguments in the Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder voting rights case.

Over the past month, pundits and immigration advocates have put forward different reasons for why the United States is ready to embrace immigration reform. They referred to political momentum stemming from President Barack Obama's re-election, shifting demographics that give greater influence to Latinos and other voters of color, and even the $1.5 trillion that reform could add to the cumulative U.S. gross domestic product over time. But perhaps the best reason is that immigration has become a matter of basic civil rights for the 11 million undocumented men, women, and children who work and live in the United States today without any legal protection.

It is not surprising, then, that many black community leaders see immigration reform as part of their own fight for civil rights. For organizers like Reverend Al Sharpton, the fight for civil rights isn't limited to the struggle of the black community, but extends to other communities who endure similar types of discrimination.

"There are those that want to use the immigration laws, profile Latinos, then they'll vote from there to profiling Africans, and Trinidadians,and Haitians," Sharpton said at a 2012 rally commemorating the 1965 march for black voter rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. "We're telling you just like 47 years ago, when our fathers stood on these steps and fought for our right to vote, and our right to be free of racism, we stand with the community to tell you we will repeal these immigration laws."

At a Congressional Black Caucus meeting earlier in February, Representative Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) framed the matter of immigrant rights in the context of the black community's battle for equality. "As Dr. King said, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It is that creed of the civil rights movement that still motivates us today," said Horsford. "So today, we take up the cause of joining arms with our immigrant brothers and sisters in that spirit… to lend a hand to those who confront injustice as a result of a broken immigration system."

Organizations focused on black rights like the NAACP have even applied their civil rights experience to defending immigrants. In 2010, the organization challenged Arizona's immigration law on the grounds that it "invites racial profiling against people of color by law enforcement… and infringes on the free speech rights of day laborers…"

Immigration activists like Ravi Ragbir, an organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, which works with people who face deportation on a daily basis, also frame immigration policy as a violation of basic civil liberties. "These laws do not target you because of what you are doing, but who you are, and because of that, it has become a civil rights issue," Ragbir explained.

Immigration reform, like the Civil Rights Movement once did, aims to humanize laws that are forcing people to live in the shadows of society, and that, Ragbir said, goes beyond being merely a matter of public policy. "If I choose to oppress you, there will be someone else who will come to oppress me," he said. "Immigration reform should push forward the perspective that to be undocumented is not a public-safety issue, a threat to society, or a national-security issue."

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