Why Immigration Reform Is Part of the Civil Rights Struggle

It extends to other communities who also endure discrimination.

February 27, 2013, 1:03 PM

March 1, 2013— -- 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."

Notably, some proposals aimed at restricting undocumented immigrants from accessing employment and social benefits have brought civil rights to the foreground when it turned out the laws would affect all Americans. The REAL ID Act, for instance, which offers driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, also proposed new federal standards for identification for all citizens. The provision sparked a national debate. Advocates wanted stricter ID programs to fight terrorism and limit immigration, but opponents saw a system that not only could discriminate—depending on ID costs, proof of residence and other criteria—but also intrude on the privacy and civil rights of everyone living in America.

While similar experiences in the face of discrimination have brought blacks and undocumented Latinos together for immigration reform, some immigration specialists point out that the African-American experience is still very different from the Latino experience. "Whereas segregation did not allow blacks to be full citizens, your experience as a Latino immigrant will differ radically from immigrant to immigrant depending on where you come from, depending on your social class and educational background, and depending on your racial background too," said Claudio Iván Remeseira, journalist and editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook.

The ability to find a universal plight in common, however, is what has empowered different immigrant groups to team up with undocumented Latinos in a shared cause. "Even though we are different and diverse, and come from different cultural backgrounds, a lot of our issues are common, whether it is fighting against detention or pushing for language access, or making sure that we have a proper future for all of our DREAMers," said Steven Choi, executive director of MinKwon Center for Community Action. The organization defends immigration rights for Koreans and the overall Asian community, which accounts for 1 million undocumented immigrants nationwide. This solidarity, Choi added, empowers undocumented Asians to stand up for themselves, and enlist in an open fight for a path to citizenship.

Whether one believes immigration reform is a civil rights issue, there's still the argument that it's good policy. Many immigration specialists point out that current immigration laws actually keep immigrants undocumented longer, and as a result, increase the danger of creating an underclass.

"Whatever one thinks of the situation that created today's large undocumented population, one can easily see how much the presence of such a large, permanent population who are part of our nation economically, socially, and culturally, but not politically, ill serves a democratic society," immigrant sociologists conclude in the book Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Coming of Age. "If we are truly concerned about the integration of the children of immigrants into American society, policies that keep their parents undocumented can only be judged highly counterproductive."

It is this idea that democracy only works when everyone living in society participates that makes immigration reform both right and smart.

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