Below is the tenth article in the series, “Immigration Reform Summer,” by Gebe Martinez, Advisor to America’s Voice Education Fund. This article is available for reprint as long as the author is given proper attribution.
Evoking memories of the African American civil rights marchers of the 1960s, 11 marchers, advocating for immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented in the U.S., are beginning the final week of their 21-day, 285-mile pilgrimage through California with a stop in a town called Selma.
On Sunday, in Greensboro, NC – a city steeped in the history of civil rights protests – and in Durham, NC, prayer vigils were held for immigration reform. Rev. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Durham noted the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the reverend read from King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham, AL, jail. “We are all in this together,” she told those assembled.
And in Alabama, a state trapped in the anti-civil rights mindset of the last Century that spurred the iconic Selma-to-Montgomery march and other voting and civil rights protests, immigration advocates have found an unlikely ally in GOP Rep. Spencer Bachus of Birmingham. Citing his Christian values and support for family unity, Bachus said recently current undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S.
This August push for immigration reform by supporters around the country coincides with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington led by King, who dared to “have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Fittingly, the founders of the civil rights movement remind today’s marchers that despite advances, more work is needed to fulfill the “dream” for African Americans, Latinos, immigrants and other seekers of justice.
“We must say to the Congress, ‘Fix the Voting Rights Act.’ We must say to the Congress, ‘Pass comprehensive immigration reform.’ It doesn’t make sense that millions of our people are living in the shadows. Bring them out into the light and set them on a path to citizenship,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-GA, during a commemorative rally on Saturday.
Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march, told the tens of thousands assembled at the Lincoln Memorial that he was arrested 40 times and shed blood as he was beaten up during early fight for civil rights. “I’m not tired. I’m not weary and I’m not prepared to sit down and give up,” he said, as he urged continued agitation for change.
No doubt the courage and perseverance of the early civil rights leaders like King and Lewis have inspired today’s immigration reform movement.
The issue was propelled to the top of Congress’ agenda by young undocumented students who call themselves “DREAMers,” after the original legislation that would have placed those who qualify on an expedited path to citizenship, and because they seek the American dream for themselves and their families.
Their courage to publicly push for immigration reform and risk deportation has been infectious and has raised visibility for immigrants seeking to come out of the shadows.
Young Korean immigrants inexperienced in campaigning, for example, found their way into a gated community in conservative Orange County, California, to ask voters in to call their congressman and ask for a House vote on immigration reform.
Their undocumented parents also are becoming activists, sharing their aspirations for citizenship with members of Congress and the news media.
In northern California, 30-year-old Maria Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant, canvasses neighborhoods every day with her 11-year-old undocumented son, and two younger citizen children, including one in a stroller.
“There are people who, truthfully, don’t want to know (about immigration reform); they don’t want to know and are very negative,” Sanchez said. But mostly, voters are supportive. “Sí se puede,” she affirmed.
In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago, King drove the point that, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Today, immigration marchers carry signs that read, “The time is now.”
In King’s time, protestors suffered beatings and indignities as they marched, conducted sit-ins, prayed and took their cause to the White House. Their legislative prize was the historic Voting Rights Act signed by President Johnson.
Today’s reformers are not beaten or sprayed with fire hoses, but are threatened by nativists who want to run immigrants out of the country or treat them as a permanent underclass in society. But the history of civil rights have taught them to stand up – even to the White House – speak out and never give in until the voices of the people are heard and until an immigration reform law with a path to citizenship is signed into law.
In this August of Immigration Reform Summer, their voices, prayers and marches are part of the legacy of King’s dream.
The King commemoration offers a chance to mark progress that has been made so far, said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza. “For us as a Latino community, it’s also a chance to show that Dr. King’s words resonated not just with one community, but with many and with an entire nation.”