This morning, I listened, as I do every year around this time, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspiring articulation of the American Dream. His words, his tone, and his emotions draw us into the expressions of his soul, transporting us to a magnificent place where all people are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin, or the nation of their birth.
Dr. King’s message transformed our reality; today, separate water fountains and segregation are acceptable only as a chapter in our country’s history books. However, the great immigration debate still partitions our nation as segregation once divided us, and we continue to contend with the boundaries of equality in this country.
Immigration Divides the US
Today’s immigration debate is complex, encompassing economics, unemployment, healthcare, national security, and even foreign policy. But civil rights, the American Dream, and the opportunity for every human being to pursue life and liberty, remain central issues for those battling for immigration reform and pathways to citizenship for immigrants.
Both sides of the immigration debate concur that the source of the problem is the federal government’s failure to address and resolve the flaws in the immigration system. In recent years, Arizona, a border state with a vested interest in the topic, has responded to that failure by introducing some of the most controversial anti-immigrant legislation, igniting new trends in “copycat” state immigration legislation around the country.
Arizona Leads the Debate
Recent Arizona legislation includes the January 2008 – AZ Bill 2770 which required mandatory E-Verify for all new hires in Arizona; the 5/1/2008 HB 2745 which amended the Legal Arizona Workers Act; and the most controversial legislation to date in April 2010 – SB 1070 signed by Governor Jan Brewer, which made the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gave the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country without lawful visa status.
This isn’t the first time Arizona has been at the forefront of a national debate on human rights. In 1986, Arizona Democrat Governor Bruce Babbit created the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday by executive order, which was subsequently rescinded by Republican Governor Evan Mecham’s days after taking office. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), voted against the creation of a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and defended Governor Mecham’s rescission of the state holiday. McCain eventually reversed his position, and even appealed to President Reagan to support the holiday, a move which reflected not his commitment to ideals and the significance of Dr. King’s message, but McCain’s susceptibility to public pressure. His vacillation foreshadowed his future conduct – he introduced and supported the DREAM Act, only to subsequently reverse his position and vote against it during the lame duck session of the 111th Congress.
In the last week, while Congress slowed down in response to the tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and President Obama promoted a national effort to increase civility in all aspects of our society, for Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, it has been business as usual. Pearce, who is known for his hard line position against illegal immigration, is not slowing down at all. He is a defender of SB 1070, explaining on his website, “We simply took the handcuffs off from law enforcement and allow them to enforce our immigration laws, like any other law.” His newest aggressive anti-immigrant legislation includes a bill which would designate second-class citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents, and create a volunteer militia to patrol the Mexican border.
Reflections on Equality and Immigration
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the “lonely island of poverty” and a “promissory note” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to which all Americans were to fall heir. His speech did not specifically address the concerns or conditions of immigrants, but his dream of “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” was one of inclusion and a vision for humankind.
At the time he spoke, Dr. King had many detractors. His views and message challenged the most embarrassing insecurities of our nation, and his attempts to create a space for all people of any color in the United States did not have universal appeal. Dr. King’s life was cut short because, despite his insistence on peaceful resistance, his ideas were a declaration of war to some.
Today, Dr. King is survived by his eternal message of equality which has increased in strength and is less controversial as it has become an incontestable truth. If Dr. King was alive today, how would he respond to the Arizona legislation and the struggle of millions of undocumented women, men, and children? More importantly, how will those of us who are in a position to vote, to advocate, and to construct the truths for the next generation of Americans prepare for this challenge?