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An Immigrant's Take on 'Selma'

02/11/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

Last week, I watched the critically acclaimed film Selma, which depicts the events surrounding the 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. This movie comes at an especially opportune time due to issues surrounding police brutality at the forefront of our national consciousness, as documented by the protest call #BlackLivesMatter. In many ways, the film shows how little progress the United States has made in truly achieving "liberty and justice for all."

As an immigrant, the inequalities Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries struggled against are all too familiar. As I watched the film, I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the second-class status of African Americans in 1965 and undocumented immigrants in this country today. This is not to say that our experiences or struggles are the same, but that this nation has a long history of fear and rejection of those deemed "outsiders" for their race, class, legal status, gender, or sexual orientation.

There is a connection between Blacks in 1965 and undocumented immigrants in 2015. As I watched Oprah Winfrey's character lower her head in shame after being turned away from registering to vote, I saw my mother's teary-eyed face on the day she was rejected from renewing her driver's license due to her legal status. As the film dramatized the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, I pictured the death of 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez at the hands of a border patrol agent, who claimed the boy was throwing rocks across the border. While the film showed the Black community listening intently as President Johnson announced the Voting Rights Act, with hope beaming and tears forming in their eyes, I was taken back to the day President Obama announced Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). Like the many African Americans gathered together to hear the news that would determine their right to self-determination, my family and fellow churchgoers gathered together to hear the long awaited news of relief and protection for immigrant families. In both scenarios, the years and years of waiting were finally over.

Something that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that the legacy of immigration in America is bound up with the horrific legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Beginning with the forced migration of African slaves to the New World, African Americans and immigrant communities have often been the victims of nativism and the fear of socio-cultural differences. Foreigners, immigrants, and native-born minorities purportedly threaten the "American" way of life and are marked as targets for deportation, detention, and other forms of oppression and subjugation.

Although African labor built much of the economy of the United States, slaves, like today's undocumented immigrants, had no way to gain citizenship or becomes full-fledged members of American society. Even after emancipation, as illustrated in the film Selma, unable to vote, shacked by "separate but equal" laws, and discriminated against due to the color of their skin, African Americans were prohibited from receiving the full rights and benefits of inclusion into the citizenry. On the contrary, African Americans suffered, and continue to suffer, from systemic violence and dehumanization in the country that was built on the backs of their chained ancestors. In the same way that the world economy was largely built on slave labor, the modern American economy has become increasingly dependent on immigrant labor.

Jim Crow depended on the maintenance of social boundaries and distinctions between "us" and "them," inclusion and exclusion, membership and difference -- the same ideologies that are used today to justify anti-immigrant sentiment and laws. Certain races, ethnicities, and national origins are characterized as threatening, as populations that need to be guarded against, as the polar opposite of what is deemed to be the ideal (read: white) American. The same system that MLK, Jr. describes as operating on "systematic intimidation and fear" marginalizes undocumented immigrants and contributes to an institutional and public mindset that facilitates the human rights abuses perpetrated by Border Patrol and other U.S. officials against migrants crossing the border and those who have already put down roots in the United States.

In his sermon following the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Dr. King denounces the racist American political and economic system that contributes to Black men and women being "murdered, brutalized, and ripped from this earth." Nativist immigration policies and the increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border contributes to hundreds of deaths yearly, the sexual harassment, assault and rape of up to 80 percent of women during the border-crossing journey, racial, ethnic/nationality and religious profiling, and the weakening of constitutional rights, particularly due process rights, and labor protections for noncitizens. Every day, migrants are dying and disappearing in the deserts and borderlands of the United States. Like Martin Luther King Jr. says in Selma, people are dying and it cannot wait.

In Ava Duvernay's movie, Dr. King asks:

Who murdered Jimmy Lee Jackson? We know a state trooper pulled the trigger, but how many fingers were on that trigger? Who murdered Jimmy Lee Jackson? Every white lawman who abuses the law to terrorize. Every white politician who feeds on prejudice and hatred. Every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation.

Today, we must ask, who murdered the 2,238 migrants who perished in the borderlands between 1990 and 2012? The real culprit is an immigration policy that feeds on on racialized fears of immigrant criminality and on strict social boundaries that distinguish between "us" and "them," and between "citizens" and "aliens," a political strategy that invests millions in erecting a wall and installing surveillance technology instead of investing in the potentiality of human beings, a legal system that serves to perpetuate injustice by institutionalizing it.