Earlier this week, the United States celebrated MLK Day. For the last quarter-century, we've marked this occasion with tributes and speeches that restate ideals that shouldn't need to be restated. I'm talking about the basics: shunning bigotry, treating individuals of different backgrounds with respect, judging people by the content of their character, and so on. We really should have these concepts down by now, but we don't.
In any case, Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is framed within the context of civil rights. Indeed, the phrase "civil rights movement" is practically trademarked to refer to the quest of African Americans in the 1960s to gain the privileges promised to them in the U.S. Constitution.
However, many social movements of the last few decades have attempted to appropriate this term as their own. Among the latest to claim the power of the civil rights movement are those who advocate for immigration reform.
Certainly, there are parallels. Like blacks in the 1960s, undocumented immigrants are on the bottom rung, socioeconomically, and are constantly demonized for society's ills. They too live in a state of perpetual fear that the state will clamp down on them, often for little cause.
These parallels haven't prevented many Americans from adopting a "deport 'em all" attitude. Let's not rehash all the reasons why this is not practical and isn't going to happen any time soon.
Assuming that one is in favor of immigration reform, then, is it accurate to call the struggles of illegal immigrants a new version of the civil rights movement? More important, is it actually offensive to make the comparison?
As Esther J. Cepeda of the Seattle Times points out, MLK and other participants of the original civil rights movement were citizens of the United States of America, and they fought for the fundamental rights that this citizenship guaranteed. Undocumented immigrants, by their very definition, are not assured these rights. Furthermore, although the struggles of illegal immigrants are substantial, "there's really no equivalent to the suffering that African Americans had to overcome."
Cepeda advises proponents of immigration reform to drop the allusions to Rosa Parks and bus boycotts. She claims, rightfully I believe, that such terminology only annoys people.
Roberto Suro of the Washington Post goes even farther. He wonders if illegal immigrants should end their drive for civil rights altogether. Suro asks if the undocumented would be willing to "settle for a legal life here without citizenship?" pointing out that "it would be a huge improvement over being here illegally."
Suro floats the idea of illegal immigrants paying a tax to live and work in America, without threat of deportation. But neither would they be allowed the full benefits of citizenship. Creating this subcategory of residents would, as Suro admits, come at a "cost to the nation's political soul of having a population deliberately excluded from the democratic process."
But is that the way to go? Is this the best that the undocumented or immigration-reform advocates can hope for?
Clearly, the very fact that baby steps such as the Dream Act get shot down is proof that immigration reform is not resonating with Americans. We just don't see it as a civil rights issue in this country.
I wonder if Martin Luther King Jr. would view it in the same manner.
Or to put it another way: Who would MLK deport?