On this fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington to demand justice and equality, the United States has once again had the chance to rise to the “better angels of its nature” by enacting just immigration reform.   A broad-based movement consisting of the religious community, organized labor, almost every major US business interest, and immigrant activists has worked tirelessly to usher through Senate Bill 744.  At the eleventh hour, the Senate adopted the Corker/Hoeven Amendment which calls for a massive increase in military spending on the border through drones, a doubling of the already substantial number of border patrol agents, and 700 miles of additional border fencing.  This “border security surge” is estimated to cost $48.3 billion.  This massive militarization of the border is exactly what Dr. King cautioned against when he spoke of the evil triplets of “materialism, militarism, and racism.”  Most recently, Texas Congressmen Beto O’Rourke aptly described the amendment as “a bonanza for defense contractors [which will] definitely cause more death and suffering.”

The Civil Rights Movement pushed the U.S. Congress to not only pass the 1964 Voting Rights Act and 1965 Civil Rights Act, but also helped to end the overt racism of the pre-1965 immigration regime  governed by a quota system created by the 1924 Immigration Act that essentially restricted immigration from Africa and Asia.   While the 1965 immigration law did not account for native country population size, it ended the race-based system designed in 1924.

The movement for racial equality, while supported by many in power in the US, was blocked in Congress by an intransigent minority hailing from states that continued to deprive citizens of the right to vote and move freely within their borders. What eventually forced the nation to change were the daily images of peaceful demonstrators who were physically attacked by police and fellow citizens throughout the South.  The nation witnessed water hoses and attack dogs unleashed on men, women, and children.  Names like Bull Conner, Joe Clarke, George Wallace, and Orville Faubus were synonymous with hatred and viewed as killing any chance for America to live up to its promise of justice and equality.

Today, we live under the weight of twenty years of some of the most vicious anti-immigrant laws and policies, starting with the U.S. reaction to the 1995 attack on Oklahoma City’s Murrow Federal Building.  Those attacks, along with the mass burnings of black churches and the Atlanta Olympics bombing, spelled a wave of terrorism and signaled to Congress a need to act.  Although the perpetrators of these acts were ideologically connected to anti-government white supremacist groups, Congress laid the punishment on immigrant communities by passing AEDPA and IIRIIRA which have created a permanent undocumented class of immigrants in the U.S. who are unable to become documented no matter how hard they work, how diligently they raise their families, how much they contribute to their communities, or how much they contribute to the economy.

Along with important Congressional advocacy, direct action in the form of civil disobedience, marches, and rallies have been integral in keeping immigration reform on the front burner. During this Congressional recess, several high level immigrant rights activists have been arrested as a result of direct action including Immigration Equality’s Exeuctive Director Rachel Tivens, union leaders, and others.  Earlier this month three Latino-American youth joined six of their fellow DREAMers in Mexico and then re-entered the U.S.  All nine were immediately detained and their bravery refocused the conversation from where the Senate left off—million dollar drones patrolling the border—to what the House must do:  assess the human toll of the past twenty years of draconian immigration laws and set the framework for an inclusive America.  This act of empowerment, along with the August 22 arrest of DREAMers trying to block an ICE removal vehicle, continues to apply pressure to the necessary points in the system and put representatives opposed to reform on the defensive.   It is commendable and exciting that those most affected by the failure of meaningful immigration reform, young undocumented youth, have placed the issue squarely in the limelight.  Let us use their bravery as a catalyst to keep fighting for meaningful and just immigration reform and take our country one step closer to the America we all believe is possible.

Written by Mark Shmueli, Member, Media-Advo Committee