Immigration is Part of the Civil Rights Movement

February 15, 2016



Birmingham will always be intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement, the movement that changed the world. Daily we remember the profound and often tragic events that took place here in 1963 — events that led to positive, transformative, and lasting change. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written during that Easter weekend of 1963, is a timeless text of moral authority that still speaks to injustice around our world.

The echoes of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 still resonate in the hearts and minds of those committed to the cause of human rights for all. The innocent blood of children shed that day is representative of the blood of all humankind. We are fortunate and thankful it was not shed for naught.

Birmingham broke the back of the segregated South. It is where many of the pivotal challenges and victories took place, the world watching as courageous nonviolent protesters demanded an end to segregation and forever changed the course of history.

And while we continue to strive for civil, social and economic justice, we must work towards equal opportunity for all. The Civil Rights Movement not only desegregated the South, but also paved the way to desegregate our nation’s borders, helping to enact the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, eliminating race-based quotas and ushering in a new era of immigration. Alongside the fight to counter historic and systemic racism in this country, it is imperative that we continue to forge these links with the immigration movement, for our valiant brothers and sisters who face discrimination and exclusion as they seek refuge in this country.

In our state of Alabama, House Bill-56, passed in 2011, is still on the books and is regarded as one of the nation’s strictest laws against undocumented immigrants. People are unable to secure identification, forced to live in the shadows, and perpetually in fear of being deported.  This law impacts the everyday lives of those trying their hardest to build a better future. Families are under peril of being ripped apart, parents are reluctant to enroll their children in school, and workers are never secure at their place of employment.   

This can no longer stand in Alabama, nor for the other hard-working immigrants across the country who are essential to the growth of our culture and economy. Nationwide, undocumented immigrants contribute more than $13 billion in payroll taxes each year, and paid an estimated $11.8 billion in state and local taxes in 2012 alone. Continued reforms in the immigration system are projected to reduce the deficit by $820 billion over the next two decades.

And right here in Birmingham, we have many immigrant success stories that add to the rich cultural and historic story of our city. These are individuals whose hard work is making the American economy stronger and our cities more vibrant. Immigrant families are a thread woven deep into the fabric of our nation. We want them here as children in our schools, as workers in our businesses, and as consumers in our economy.

Fortunately, there can be a step forward in this direction. President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will provide temporary work authorization and relief from deportation for millions of immigrants, allowing them to be able to more fully participate in civic life. Unfortunately, 26 states — including Alabama — are suing to block these important reforms, the fate of which now lies with the Supreme Court of the United States.

While some opponents have turned to hate-filled rhetoric and a thinly disguised distortion of the facts, we want to set the record straight. We know better than to believe the “us versus them” narrative that threatens to pit communities against each other. Right here in Alabama, Stokely Carmichael, an immigrant from Trinidad, fought tirelessly alongside sharecroppers for the right to vote. We know that our communities are strengthened when everyone has equal rights, and we have seen the success that comes from working together toward that goal.

Support for the president’s executive actions on immigration is not about offering amnesty. It is about humanity and creating opportunity for millions of deserving immigrants already living, working and contributing to our country.

In that historic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ … This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”

We can no longer make the millions of immigrants who qualify for President Obama’s reforms wait.  Welcoming them is what’s right for our country, our cities and our economy. And it is what we need right now.

As we take time to reflect on what Black History Month means to each of us, and how far we have come in the Civil Rights Movement, we cannot forget that the heart of that movement — equality and opportunity for all — is also the lifeblood of immigration reform.

The history of Birmingham embodies the legacy of the civil rights struggle, and as the mayor of this dynamic city, I aim to carry forth this legacy in part by being a proud member of Cities for Action. We join nearly 100 mayors and municipalities from across the United States who are leading the effort to make our country stronger, safer and more prosperous through supporting the president’s executive actions on immigration. And as we head to the polls on Super Tuesday, we must keep this momentous step in the right direction at the forefront of our minds. Our history demands and our future deserves for us to lead the way on immigration reform.

William A. Bell
Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama 


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