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Janet Langhart Cohen Headshot

The Dream

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As we pause to pay tribute to a man who helped change the course of American history, it's important to remember that the creation of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not spring forth without great labor or controversy. Some legislators did not believe that the man who led the modern civil rights movement was worthy of state or federal recognition. Fortunately, those who held such views were a narrow-minded minority.

I had the great and good fortune to know Dr. King. During the last two years of his life, he was my mentor and friend. He offered me lessons that helped guide me through the long, dangerous and difficult path to achieving the full equality that the Constitution declared I was entitled to as an American citizen.

I was not always an eager student. Initially, I questioned his policy of non-violence. I found the militancy of Malcolm X comported more with the rage that coursed through me over the very notions of white supremacy and white privilege. Malcolm's defiant resistance, "by all means necessary," was the call to action that stirred my soul. Yet, Dr. King, through his displays of uncommon courage in the face of racial slurs, J. Edgar Hoover's wiretaps, stonings, death threats, police harassment and imprisonment, persuaded me that fighting racism with blind rage was a prescription for defeat. After all, the white power structure had all of the guns, badges and dogs. "No," he counseled me, "we will love them into their humanity. We will shame them into decency." Indeed, he did precisely that.

Any mention of Dr. King inevitably evokes the "I Have A Dream" speech that he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28,1963. It was an inspirational appeal that touched the conscience of the American people; a call to shake off the shackles of hatred and bigotry that deprived black people of America's promise. While on that momentous occasion, he called for an end to institutionalized racism, Dr. King opposed discrimination and injustice in all of its forms.

Had Dr. King been allowed to escape his assassin's bullet, I know he would have been in the forefront of the effort to bring about the realization of another dream, one that would have extended eventual citizenship to those who live and work among us without legal certification or permission. With power and grace, he would have reminded us that it is our generosity towards the desperate and dispossessed that marks the greatness of America. He would have joined hands with religious leaders and citizens of all faiths and shouted, Tengo Un Sueño.

An honorable way to help Hispanic children realize their dream would be to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) -- a proposal designed to extend to the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through education or military service. While the 111th Congress passed significant legislation in its "lame duck" session, it decided this was a dream that had to be deferred. Opponents of the legislation insisted that creating an incentive to pursue education and military service was nothing more than a grant of amnesty to law breakers. Apparently, they believe that the sins of the parents must be visited upon their children.

Rounding up millions of illegal immigrants and expelling them from deportation centers is not a policy that we could trumpet with pride. Nor would the deprivation of medical care, housing, sustenance and employment opportunities for the specific purpose of driving them back to their homelands be worthy of America the beautiful.

Opponents of responsible immigration reform want to go even further to force a new Exodus of those who are undocumented. Not only have they granted to police the right to stop any person (read: Hispanic) who appears to be illegal, they have also introduced legislation that would grant states the right to determine a person's citizenship. African-Americans know what "states' rights" and "strict construction" of the Constitution have meant for us over the centuries.

We need to regain control of our borders, to be sure, and express an equal zeal to punish those who employ and exploit the vulnerabilities of undocumented workers. But we also have an obligation to treat those who came to America in a desperate search for economic opportunity with a degree of decency and humanity worthy of our professed ideals.

The most decent and humane way to treat those who have entered our country illegally is to adopt a comprehensive immigration law that requires them to work to achieve what others had waited for, and to provide their children with an opportunity to become highly educated citizens who will serve our country in and out of uniform. That would be an act of righteousness that would "roll down like water from a mighty stream."