Immigration and the Civil Rights Movement

(September 25th, 2007)

When I first heard people referring to immigration as the civil rights issue of our generation, I wasn’t sure if I agreed with the characterization.  It wasn’t that I was unsympathetic to the plight of undocumented workers.  I was simply nervous about how the struggle of African Americans might be used or interpreted.

While I felt the need to be very careful with this chapter of our history, I later concluded that such a link was not about being romantic or disrespectful of yesterday’s heroes.  It was about analysis of the situation.


The first thing many like to point out when this comparison arises is that the civil rights struggle was for rights guaranteed under citizenship, therefore unrelated to the struggle of non-citizens.  Of course reducing the difference of these situations down to the matter of citizenship does two convenient things.  It denies the similarities between both groups, and it ignores America’s role on the world stage.

It was not the belief in citizenship under a nation that held together the civil rights movement.  It was the belief in equality.  The civil rights movement was very much a human rights movement.  It was a fight against the idea that certain people deserve more or less than other people based solely on the circumstances of their birth.  And just as no one chooses their skin color upon being born, no one chooses the place of their birth either.


Many in the United States used to act (some still do) as if slavery never happened, claiming that blacks had it just as good as whites.  This is akin to ignoring American empire and our role in the global economy.

As a great deal of the wealth and privilege of the United States was built on the exploitation of those human beings stolen from Africa, a great deal of the wealth and privilege in the United States today comes from the exploitation of those human beings in what is often referred to as the third world.

Despite what many would like to believe, the United States is not simply a good, law-abiding world citizen, minding its own business.  Instead, we are a nation that enforces our economic dominance on the world stage, as Arundhati Roy put it, by either the checkbook or the cruise missile.  We will overthrow a democracy as quickly as we will support a tyrant.  We will enforce the payment of colonial debt as well as help create neo-colonial debt.  We will send in the economic hit men, and if that doesn’t work we will send in the real hit men.  It doesn’t matter if it’s subversion of elections or full-scale military invasion, we will do whatever it takes to protect our “national interests,” which almost always translates into the business interests of transnational corporations.

For sure, much of our prosperity has been due to the hard work of U.S. citizens.  But this is not the whole story.  From NAFTA to CAFTA, from the World Bank to the IMF, from the WTO to export processing zones, from the privatization of all that is essential to life to the patenting of life itself, the disparity between our wealth and their poverty is no coincidence.  As African Americans came to claim their fair share of the American Dream, so are others just as deserving of the fruits of their sacrifice.

Though it’s not just about getting what you’ve been denied.  The fight for social justice is about addressing a hierarchy of power and privilege.  That’s what made the civil rights struggle so daunting.  It wasn’t just about black people wanting more.  It was about white people not wanting to let go.  Lack of rights for blacks meant undue privilege for whites.  Eliminating the disadvantages of blacks meant eliminating the advantages of whites.

The parallel is striking.  While so many whites vehemently and venomously guarded the privilege afforded by their skin tone, so many Americans militantly guard the privilege afforded by their citizenship.

If we’re going to talk about citizenship, we must do so realistically.  The majority of us did nothing to earn our citizenship other than fall where we landed.  In a global community, this is not just a matter of rights but a matter of privilege.  The luck of our birth allows us the comforts of the “developed” world.  Moreover, the multitude of privileges we call the American way of life, once built on slave labor, is now maintained through discriminatory foreign policy.  All of which makes brushing aside the concerns of non-citizens not only convenient but callous.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”  He was referring to how the government had actively put obstacles in the way of blacks enjoying the full potential of the nation’s economy.  Likewise, telling immigrants to fix their own countries’ problems ignores the obstacles the United States has left in the way of doing just that.

Through laws and institutions heavily architected by our government, the global economy is a segregated one.  To simply seal our borders in the face of American foreign policy going back more than one hundred years is to brazenly declare the world separate and unequal.

Whether it be a national setting or a world community, you cannot expect people to stay second class citizens forever.  Eventually they will demand more.  Unfortunately, the only thing many of us see when this path brings them to our doorstep is a criminal.

All we are supposed to know about so-called illegal immigrants is that they broke the law, and the debate stops there.  We’re not supposed to know their names.  We’re not supposed to know their stories.  We’re not supposed to know the conditions in their home country.  We’re definitely not supposed to know if U.S. economic policy had anything to do with those conditions.  All we’re supposed to know is that these people are criminals.

But if breaking the law automatically makes one a criminal, what about someone like Rosa Parks?  Or what about James Lawson and the courageous students who were convicted of disorderly conduct for their participation in the Nashville sit-in demonstrations?  Do their stories stop at the point where they broke the law?

It might be hard to find anyone today who would publicly denounce African Americans for their use of non-violent resistance during the civil rights movement.  At the time, however, this was not the case.  From the podium to the pulpit, labels like criminal and troublemaker were heaped upon those brave enough to violate what they saw to be unjust laws.

I often wonder if forty years from now the crime of undocumented workers will also be seen as a form of civil disobedience.  Just as African Americans could no longer take life under jim crow, many in the developing world are finding no other choice but to struggle against the ills of an unjust economy.  For those whose fight to survive with dignity has led them to the capital of global capitalism, what greater example of non-violent resistance could be asked for than an honest day’s work?


One thing that helped change the conscience of America during the civil rights era was witnessing the gross injustices that African Americans had to endure.  Civil rights leaders were gambling that the American news media could no longer deny these heartbreaking stories and that such coverage would be a catalyst to bringing about this change.

After all, it’s hard to watch, in your own country, mobs hurl profanity at little children.  It’s hard to watch, in your own country, dogs and fire hoses being brought out onto men and women singing their way up the street.  It’s hard to watch, in your own country, the kind of brutality wrought upon an entire population whose sole crime was being born the “wrong” color.

If only we had the same news coverage of the brutality of neoliberal capitalism, maybe the tenor of the debate about immigration would be a little different.  After all, it’s hard to watch a million peasant farmers in Mexico lose their livelihoods due to a so-called free trade agreement.  It’s hard to watch a hundred thousand Indian farmers commit suicide under the pressures of imposed debt.  It’s hard to watch resource rich countries in Africa go without proper food, water, and sanitation.  It’s hard to watch your own country’s hand in facilitating, and in many cases controlling, such injustices.

It may not be pretty news to cover slave labor in the chocolate industry or how our shoes are made or how those pretty flowers find their way to you on Valentine’s Day.  But neither was covering Bull Connor.  If it was important to show how police were turned into common goon squads against blacks in the United States, it’s important to show how American companies pay terrorist and paramilitary organizations to handle labor leaders in their foreign operations.

As blacks expected whites to face the naked injustice of white supremacy, those in the developing world expect Americans to acknowledge U.S. interference in their economies.  Unfortunately, with the present corporate media unwilling to give as stark a portrayal of how the current economic model hurts even our own citizens, it appears far less likely that Americans will be forced to honestly address the immoral implications of no-holds-barred capitalism.


Now, much of what I have covered so far in this essay may be very hard for some readers to take.  Admittedly, such conclusions weren’t that easy for me to arrive at.  And yet it’s not at all what I have mentioned so far that has everyone so nervous about viewing the issue of immigration in the context of civil rights.

I think it’s safe to say that our failure to acknowledge the economic implications of the immigration debate is on par with ignoring institutional racism.  Some of us don’t care enough (or rather don’t have to care enough) to explore further than slogans and clichés.  Others simply see no problem with the inequality.  In either case, when it comes to maintaining our privilege, we make peace with a system of discrimination.

In other words, we’ve made peace with the fundamentals of racism.  We’ve made peace with a system of hierarchy based either on the circumstances of one’s birth or the convenience of those with the most power.  When it comes to answers that might point to our own undue power or privilege, we’ve learned not to ask questions.

But it’s more than that.  It’s this acceptance of hierarchy that fosters the mentality of mine and yours, which quickly breaks down to us vs. them.  This same mentality rationalized not only slavery and jim crow, but the quest of white Europeans to become the first truly illegal immigrants of this nation.


Many resent the assumption that to root for the home team in this debate it must mean you’re a racist.  Racism, however, isn’t just about overt displays of hatred.  It’s about condoning institutional inequities, especially when they work to your advantage.

As a matter of principle, it’s not that far of a stretch to equate white supremacy with national supremacy.  Empires, by definition, treat less powerful countries as inferior.  To maintain our own hegemony, the United States pursues inequality throughout the world and encourages the types of economic practices that inflict a sorry state of being onto those unfortunate enough to be born somewhere else.

By not fighting to correct these ills, we’ve accepted the assumption of our superiority.  As long as it doesn’t adversely affect us, we’re willing to go along and let the system of hierarchy play itself out.

And let’s be honest.  Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that at least some of this controversy boils down to skin color?  It’s undeniable that most of the venom is reserved for our brown brothers and sisters.  Many even in the mainstream have had no problem reducing the debate to words like “culture” and even color, openly expressing their worries about living in a nation with a non-white majority.

I don’t think it’s beyond the pale of reality to wonder if the most militant enforcers of our southern border might have also been the most anti-civil rights.  In fact, some of the same people and organizations who fought tooth and nail against blacks a generation ago are now spearheading current anti-immigration campaigns.

Now am I saying that anyone who would disagree with me on this issue is a racist?  Absolutely not.  I am, however, saying that if you deny the stripes of such bedfellows, don’t be too surprised who you wake up next to.


There is a reason why many are reluctant to scratch below the surface of the immigration debate, just as there is a reason why many don’t debate institutional racism.

Ignoring these crucial issues, however, reduces history to tales of George Washington and the cherry tree.  On the contrary, history is more than the privileged would allow us to believe.

You can’t intelligently talk about the immigration debate without honestly talking about capitalism.  While it may be true that we built capitalism, it must be asked what it was built on.  The answer of course is stolen land.  And not just land, but labor.  Slave labor.  Indentured servitude.  Chinese railroad labor.  Exploitative labor in the mines.  The list goes on and on.  We have to quit acting like the story of capitalism is a noble one.  Fortunes have always been made on the backs of those least fortunate.  This includes the least fortunate in other countries.

How long can we allow free flow of capital but not free flow of labor and then pretend that it’s not discrimination?  How long can we deny that our comforts are dependent upon the misery of human beings we could have been?

Yes, the manifestations of these segregations are different.  Yet they’re not so different that we can’t recognize the lessons.  Today many of us take for granted that a black man or woman can walk through the front door of their local diner, sit down at the counter, and demand the same service as anyone else.  Although many are coming through the back door because they can’t get in the front, scores of men and women today are recognizing their right to a better life and demanding a seat at the table.


Having said all that, many will not even entertain such a discussion and will end the debate at citizenship.  Yet if you’re going to split hairs over the rights bestowed under citizenship versus human rights, you have to at least ask yourself if you believe in the concept of human rights regardless of birth.

If you do believe in human rights, then wouldn’t you agree that national laws may never trump such rights?  Remember that it was our own Declaration of Independence which set forth that all of humanity is created equal with certain unalienable rights.

If, on the other hand, you don’t believe in human rights, then you must ask why we as a nation are any more worthy of the privileges, or shall I say the spoils, of capitalism than anyone else.  Again, most of us “earned” our citizenship by being born within imaginary lines on a map.  If we admit that our privilege should be based on the luck of our birth, isn’t that the same injustice that African Americans were fighting against in the civil rights struggle?

African Americans were fighting against the legacy of slavery, a human rights crime.  Today there is a fight against forced neoliberalism, also a human rights crime.  If we are to live up to the principles we claim this nation stands for, we must be willing to critically examine our role in such crimes.

Otherwise, our respect for the civil rights movement is just for show and the sign above the door will ironically continue to read “AMERICANS ONLY.”