NEW YORK — As the crowds come together to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a seminal event in the civil rights movement, old issues of jobs and freedom have been joined by immigration reform, which 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 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 the 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 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.”