NEW YORK — When 250,000 marchers converged on Washington in August 1963, the issues were jobs and freedom.
Now, as the crowds come together to mark the 50th anniversary of that seminal event in the civil rights movement, those issues have been joined by others, including one, immigration reform, that wasn’t nearly on the political radar then like it is today.
“They were fighting for equality, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for,” said Mikhel Crichlow, 28, a native of Trinidad and Tobago now living in Brooklyn. Crichlow said he was going to Washington for the commemoration.
The push for comprehensive immigration reform was heard from the speakers’ podium on Saturday, when tens of thousands marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and down the National Mall.
“It doesn’t make sense that millions of our people are living in the shadows,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a speaker at the 1963 event. “Bring them out into the light and set them on the path to citizenship.”
Immigrant advocates came from near and far to be part of the commemoration. They included Casa de Maryland, founded by Central American immigrants in the D.C. area in 1985. The organization connected Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech to the dreams of immigrants in the United States illegally who are looking for legal status.
“One of the big reasons immigrant groups wanted to participate was to show the connection,” said Shola Ajayi, the group’s advocacy director, who said Casa mobilized hundreds of people to attend.
The link between the civil rights activism and America’s immigration reality brings history full circle as the demographic change being seen across the United States owes some of its existence to the decades-ago movement.
It was with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the federal government radically altered immigration policy, opening America’s doors to the world after decades of keeping them shut to entire geographic regions. That decision planted the seeds for the demographics explosion the country is living in now, a shift that historians say happened in part because of a hunger for change and equality created by the civil rights movement.
The movement “broke through the whole aura of political stagnation that was created by the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and allowed us to imagine another” world, said Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University in New York. “It was the civil rights movement … that broke through the logjam and allowed people to talk about real issues in our domestic lives.”
Immigration activist Renata Teodoro, who came here from Brazil as a child, studied the tactics of the civil rights movement and incorporated them into her own activism. The Boston resident has long been a proponent of granting legal status to immigrants who, like her, were brought to the U.S. as children.
The Civil Rights movement, she said, humanized the issues of the day, and by doing so, “that changed the culture, that’s what changed a lot of hearts and minds.”
While the United States has its roots in being a welcoming place for immigrants, that hasn’t always been the case. It is true that a wave of new arrivals flooded U.S. shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but a movement to restrict who was allowed into the country took hold as well.
In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal law to put immigration limits in place and the only one in American history aimed at a specific nationality. It came into being in response to fears, primarily on the West Coast, that an influx of Chinese immigrants was weakening economic conditions and lowering wages. It was extended in 1902.
Other laws followed, like the Immigration Act of 1917, which created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” to restrict immigration from that part of the world, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited the number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of those people from that country who had been living in the United States as of 1910.
The 1924 Immigration Act capped the number of immigrants from a particular country at 2 percent of the population of that country already living in the United States in 1890. That favored immigrants from northern and western European countries like Great Britain over immigrants from southern and eastern European countries like Italy.
It also prevented any immigrant ineligible for citizenship from coming to America. Since laws already on the books prohibited people of any Asian origin from becoming citizens, they were barred entry. The law was revised in 1952, but kept the quota system based on country of origin in the U.S. population and only allowed low quotas to Asian nations.
The American children of Italian and other European immigrants saw that law “as a slur against their own status” and fought for the system to be changed, said Mae Ngai, professor of history and Asian American studies at Columbia University. In fighting for change, they looked to the civil rights movement.
The political leaders who agreed with them saw it in the same terms, as a change needed for equality’s sake, as well as to be responsive to shifting relationships with nations around the world.
Speaking to the American Committee on Italian Migration in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy cited the “nearly intolerable” plight of those who had family members in other countries who wanted to come to the U.S. and could be useful citizens, but were being blocked by “the inequity and maldistribution of the quota numbers.”
Two years later, in signing into law a replacement system that established a uniform number of people allowed entry to the United States despite national origin, President Lyndon B. Johnson said it would correct “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
Stephen Klineberg, sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, said the civil rights movement “was the main force that made that viciously racist law come to be perceived as intolerable,” precisely because it raised questions about fairness and equality.
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