The Intersection of Immigration and Civil Rights
Monday, January 19, 2015
Every January, the nation looks back at the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great contributions to the civil rights movement, specifically, and to our country as a whole. Dr. King’s actions, literally, changed the face of the United States, as the civil rights movement opened the door for the first wave of immigration reform in the 1960s.
In the post-World War II era, African Americans were suffering under the thumb of the Jim Crow South, while being denied employment, educational and other opportunities throughout the country. At the same time, the Cold War and McCarthyism conspired to deny entire populations of people the benefits of immigrating to America. The immigration policies of the time, like the laws that denied or failed to protect the rights of Black Americans, were founded, largely, on bigotry.
Dr. King and the civil rights movement opened the doors to America by shedding light on the racist shadows of then-current immigration policy. A long string of U.S. legislation from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Asiatic Barred Act and the Emergency Quota Act limited the number of U.S. immigrants from geographic regions largely on the basis of race or ethnicity. The bizarre math used in immigration quotas created a preference for British and Northern European, i.e. white, immigrants over the rest of the world’s population, including southern European, particularly Italian, immigrants.
In a June 1963 speech, President John F. Kennedy called the plight of families who were separated from loved ones in other countries "nearly intolerable." The ability of families to reunite in the U.S. and become contributing citizens was derailed by "the inequity and maldistribution of the quota numbers." After Kennedy was assassinated later that same same year, the cloak of civil rights and immigration reform fell onto the shoulders of President Johnson. Within the first two years of Johnson’s presidency, the federal Civil Rights Act was passed, as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which radically changed both American immigration policy and demographics.
Today, we are — for better or worse — at a similar crossroads. Civil rights and race relations are again at the forefront of American gestalt, along with the call for real immigration reform that acknowledges the immigrant past and diverse present of the United States. In his 1963 “I Have a Dream…” speech, Dr. King reminded us that this country was founded on the credo that “all… are created equal.” Half a century later, it is time to once again reflect on Dr. King’s dream and embrace the diverse nation that the U.S. has become.