Earlier this month, thousands gathered on the National Mall to show Congress they had not gone away and would not be deterred in their quest for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. They were young, old, union, non-union, students, and faith leaders of varying races and ethnicities. Many were willing to risk arrest, sacrificing personal freedom to decry our nation's broken immigration system. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Immigration is clearly a racial justice issue. In the past 20 years, the great majority of immigrants are people of color. According to 2010 census data, less than 2 percent of unauthorized immigrants are from Europe or Canada, while 87 percent are from Latin America, 3 percent from Africa and 7 percent from Asia. Now that the racial composition of immigrants has changed, a number of draconian restrictions on immigrants' rights have been enacted, making it impossible for this generation of immigrants to become "legal." This is one of the dishonorable, hidden secrets of why 11 million people of color are undocumented and without access to citizenship. Moreover, this history of keeping people of color without access to citizenship is certainly a history that should resonate with African-Americans.
That's why Advancement Project stood with throngs of people -- including Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Forward Together Movement -- who assembled on the National Mall on Oct. 8 to demand a path to citizenship for immigrants. Barber, who organized the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina to oppose an avalanche of extreme policies in his state, rightly implored the crowd to "take action so that this nation will discard injustice, put away deportation, turn away from wrong and embrace all people."
As a racial justice organization, we embrace the causes of all people of color in the fight for true democracy. And while we're socialized to think of immigration as an issue facing Latinos alone, immigrant justice impacts us all. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, businesses try to pit one group of workers against another. Immigrants are also exploited, often forced to work long hours, under dangerous working conditions, for little or no pay. As people of color, we understand exploitation. We understand what it's like to work hard only to barely get by. We must be the first to raise the banner in support of equal justice for immigrants. We should be the first to argue for a fair pathway to citizenship, understanding that this is the only path to workers' rights.
This issue is about right and wrong. Many millions of families are forced to live in the shadows, under fear of arrest of deportation, feeding our nation's prison industrial complex, criminalizing the adults and separating parents from children. It's a moral issue when people who appear to be immigrants are racially profiled, especially in states like Alabama and Arizona, which passed laws that require police and other state officials to determine immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" about their citizenship. These are moral issues to which we can relate.
And finally, who decides who gets to be an American? As African-Americans -- whose own ancestors endured the forced migration of slavery, then migrated North in search of fair housing, education and job opportunities; and whose very existence continues to be criminalized by the war on drugs or discriminatory policies such as "Stop and Frisk" -- surely we can understand the plight of immigrants. As a people who had to fight long and hard for a path to citizenship -- meaning a long and hard fight for voting rights and true equality -- we cannot watch this debate from the sidelines.
This piece originally ran on BET.com on October 30, 2013.