Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Immigration Reformers

8638306291_2854c31e2c_zOn the 50th Anniversary of the historic “March on Washington” which led to some of the most significant legislative victories in the civil rights movement, it’s hard to not reflect on the influence that activists and legislators in the 1960’s have had and should have on the immigrant rights movement today. There are, in fact at least two very important takeaways for immigration reformers. First, the activists in the 60’s showed that the power was indeed in the hands of the people and flexing political muscle would pay off. Second, final passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act demonstrated how strong political leaders can negotiate controversial bills and get them across the finish line.

On the activist end, this August, as Congress went on recess, the broadening immigrant rights community is organizing and executing hundreds of events around the country in an effort to raise the political stakes and public profile of immigration reform.  Many of today’s young activists have been inspired by the courageous people who led the protests against unequal treatment in the 1960’s and their tactics continue to be emulated.

The Washington Post reports:

An unusual alliance of advocates — including Internet moguls and evangelicals, representatives of big business and labor unions — is working across the country during the August congressional recess in an all-out push for immigration reform. The broad effort, which also includes immigrant rights groups, is using diverse tactics, too. There are roundtables and rallies, sit-ins and voter registration drives, as well as expensive radio and television ads. In Georgia, activists plan to deliver Mexican, Korean and other international food to a congressman’s office Thursday to highlight the many immigrant communities that are part of his district.

And just as inspired activism paid off in the 60’s it still works today.  As America’s Voice reports, at least 24 House Republicans have come out in support of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. This is key, as the fate of immigration reform sits in the hands of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

As for lawmakers, the struggle over the 1964 civil rights law is instructive. Like immigration reform, it was a controversial bill and held up in one chamber (Senate not House) as different factions dug in their heels.  Southern Democrats fought against civil rights and many amendments and changes were made over months of negotiations. The only hope of passage was strong party leadership. Such is the case today. There is no doubt divisions remain in the House over immigration reform and there are different factions, even among the Republicans about how to move (or not move) forward. However, it will ultimately be up to the leaders of the Republican Party to negotiate a way forward.

Like Civil Rights in the 1960’s and Immigration Reform today,  Congress must decide whether the United States will allow a large swath of its population to be full, equal participants in its Democracy or not?

As Senator Hubert Humphrey said on the day of the cloture vote on the Civil Rights bill “The Constitution of the United States is on trial. The question is whether we will have two types of citizenship in this nation, or first-class citizenship for all.”

And this is the question before the House of Representatives on immigration reform now. Will they offer the 11 million people living and working in this country a chance a full “first-class citizenship”? Or relegate them to something less?

Senator Dirksen’s issued a warning to his colleagues before the Senate vote in 1964 which still rings true today on immigration:  “we dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. It’s time has come.”

Photo Courtesy of SEIU.

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