Immigration: It’s Never Been ‘Us vs. Them’

Don't take our word for it. Here's what a rainbow of leaders have said about the age-old American issue.

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    Van Jones (Getty Images); Barbara Arwine (Getty Images); Mee Moua (courtesy of Mee Moua)

    On Oct. 8, tens of thousands of immigration-reform activists are expected to rally in Washington, D.C., to call on Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrants. Among their number will be civil rights activists who primarily represent other causes. It won’t be the first time we’ve seen leaders draw parallels between the causes of immigrants and those of other oppressed groups. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has said, “African Americans understand the struggle for citizenship … As a community, we are particularly sensitive to incorporating people into the community without providing full citizenship.”

    With the help of LCCHR, The Root has pulled together these reminders of what Henderson and 23 other activists, leaders and thinkers of all stripes — from Frederick Douglass to NOW’s Terry O’Neill to a leading rabbi — have had to say about this age-old American issue. One thing is clear: As Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) once put it, it’s never been “us versus them.”

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    Courtesy of National Action Network

    The Rev. Al Sharpton

    “Immigration is not just a Latino issue … Morally we ought to be coalescing to give immigrants rights … and fight for rights together rather than be crabs in the barrel trying to crawl on each other’s back. We need to unite and take the lid off of where we are caged so there’s room for all of us to spread out. Let’s not fight each other; let’s unite,” said this minister and longtime civil rights activist the day after President Barack Obama outlined his plans for immigration reform in January 2013. 

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    Barbara Arnwine

    Arguing that “comprehensive reform to our immigration system is an essential tool to safeguard basic human and civil rights, while ensuring equality under the law of all those who reside or wish to reside in the United States,” this voting-rights advocate and head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also said, “Undocumented residents, many of whom are people of color, are vulnerable to family separation, workplace exploitation and limited opportunities for advancement.”

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    Library of Congress

    Bayard Rustin

    Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, had this to say about Vietnamese immigrants seeking refugee status in the United States: “If our government lacks compassion for these dispossessed human beings, it is difficult to believe that the same government can have much compassion for America’s black minority, or for America’s poor.”

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    Benjamin Todd Jealous

    Explaining in May 2013 why the NAACP joined other civil rights and human-rights organizations to support comprehensive immigration reform, the NAACP president said, “African Americans have spent much of our history fighting for equal treatment … Like our ancestors who migrated from the former slave states of the Deep South, millions of undocumented immigrants move to the United States each year to find work and a decent education for their children.” People of color, he also said, “have a responsibility to stand up for social justice whenever it is violated.”

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    Cornel West

    “We want immigration reform now, and we’re gonna get it now. You know why? ‘Cause when you love folks, you hate the fact they’re being treated unfairly. You hate the fact they’re being treated unjustly. And we know that justice is what love looks like in public,” the professor and author told a cheering crowd at a Washington, D.C., rally for immigration reform in March 2010.

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    Dolores Huerta

    In an 2010 interview on immigration reform, the DREAM Act and why immigrants come to the U.S., Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, made plain the logic behind her views: “[E]veryone who came to this country were immigrants at one time or another — legalization has always been the policy of the United States — so we’re not asking for anything different.”

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    Wade Henderson

    Warning that immigration reform without a path to immigration for undocumented immigrants would force them to remain second-class citizens, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said this just before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington: “African Americans understand the struggle for citizenship. It took the Civil War and many years after that to provide citizenship. As a community, we are particularly sensitive to incorporating people into the community without providing full citizenship.”

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    Frederick Douglass

    The author and abolitionist is best-known as a champion of African-American rights, but in an 1869 speech, he also attacked the discrimination and violence that Chinese immigrants were facing: “I submit this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.”

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    Courtesy of Texas Civil Rights Project

    Gaby Pacheco

    At a July 2013 panel discussion addressing the question “In the immigration debate, why does citizenship matter?” the DREAM activist and immigrant-rights leader said that many aspiring citizens report that their lives are filled with incidents that deprive them of their humanity. She also made the case that citizenship would change that: “Citizenship is beyond a piece of paper. It is the opportunity to live, to be engaged, to be seen as equal.”

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    Gloria Steinem

    In 2010, after a harsh anti-immigration law was passed in Arizona, the writer, feminist icon and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center said, “The truth is that millions more Americans would be the natural allies of immigrants if they were presented with an accurate picture of who immigrants really are. That number of supporters would be increased still more by knowing how important a part of the economy female immigrants are.”

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    Rep. John Lewis

    Fifty years after taking part in the Freedom Rides, the civil rights legend, Georgia congressman and Congressional Black Caucus member gave The Root his take on the most pressing contemporary causes: “When you take on the immigrant population, you’re taking on all of us.”

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    Arnold Newman, White House Press Office

    President Lyndon B. Johnson

    “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources — because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples,” the champion of civil rights legislation said in a timeless commentary on immigration.

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    Mara Keisling

    The founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equalitysaid in a joint 2013 statement pushing for the passage of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, “As a nation, we pride ourselves on keeping families united, and our immigration policies should reflect our commitment to keep families together — all families.”

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    Marc Morial

    The president and CEO of the National Urban League, and former mayor of New Orleans, said in 2013 that “fairness, compassion and common sense dictate that we address the … people who are in this country who are undocumented.” He also pointed out that these immigrants “are not simply from one part of the world; they’re from all over the world.”

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    Marvin Randolph

    “When you codify discrimination into the law at any time, that’s a very slippery slope … What happens to [black Americans] happens to immigrants next,” the vice president of campaigns for the NAACP has warned in commentary linking the plights of the two groups.

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    Courtesy of Mee Moua

    Mee Moua

    “An immigration system that harms women inevitably hurts families and communities. Immigrant women, like all women, are the backbone of their families and communities,” the head of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said in testimony (pdf) before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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    Rabbi David Saperstein

    Arguing that the issue of immigration reform has “a special resonance” with Jewish people, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said, “[W]e understand all too vividly and personally the many challenges faced by today’s immigrants. In America we finally found a country that gave us more rights, more freedom, more opportunities than we had ever known anywhere in our history outside of Israel. Can we do less than ensure an America where every immigrant is treated with the same respect and afforded safety and the opportunity to contribute?”

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    Rashad Robinson

    “Too often, the scope is limited in a way that excludes the experiences of Black immigrants and Black Americans … inflammatory rhetoric regularly attempts to pit Black and immigrant communities against each other as if the terms ‘immigrant’ or even ‘Latino’ can never have a Black face,” the executive director co-wrote in a piece titled “Black Immigrants Waiting for Reform, Too.”

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    The Rev. Jesse Jackson

    “We support comprehensive immigration reform, one, because it is morally right … the American promise is that of the many, we become one,” the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition said at a 2010 march for immigration reform.

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    Sen. Edward Kennedy

    “The U.S. is a nation of immigrants … I look across this historic gathering and I see the future of America … Our streets may not be paved with gold, but they are paved with the promise that men and women who live here — even strangers and new newcomers — can rise as fast, as far as their skills will allow, no matter what their color is, no matter what the place of their birth,” the senator and civil rights champion said at an immigration rally in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

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    Terry O'Neill

    Women have fought for centuries to be recognized, to have the right to vote, to work and be paid for it, to realize their full potential. We must continue to fight for millions of immigrant women to get that same recognition,” the president of the National Organization for Women said in September 2013 after more than 100 women were arrested blockading the intersection outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the House of Representative’s inaction on comprehensive immigration. I am proud to stand with them and demand that the House pass immigration reform that treats women fairly.”

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    Thomas A. Saenz

    “Our immigration system is discriminatory. We have a system that does not provide legal representation, often even a hearing, for decisions that are life and death for some families. We have a system that allows law enforcement to make assumptions based on race or identity that is inconsistent with our constitutional values … We must reintroduce equal-protection values into our definition of family — of any kind — under our immigration law,” the president and general counsel for MALDEF, or the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said as part of a 2010 push for comprehensive immigration reform.

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    Van Jones

    “There is a ‘greenwashing’ of hate that is going on in our country,” the environmental advocate said in 2010 comments on behalf of the Center for American Progress’ Green Opportunity initiative. Anti-immigrant front groups are using “green concerns as a bludgeon against immigrants and low-income communities.” The truth, he said, is that “immigrants are not a problem when it comes to the greening of a America; they are disproportionately part of the solution. Immigrant communities live greener lifestyles and support greener policies.”

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    Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II

    “I am concerned by the majority’s attempt to manufacture tension between African Americans and immigrant countries,” the Missouri congressman said about the GOP at a House of Representatives hearing on immigration, adding, “It seems as though they would like for our communities to think about immigration in terms of ‘us versus them,’ and I reject that notion.”

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