AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

On eve of civil rights march anniversary, immigration reform takes center stage

Almost fifty years after the March on Washington, a different kind of civil rights battle is taking center stage.

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the March on Washington over the next week, hundreds are hoping to harness their spirit of activism and advocacy to push for immigration reform across the nation. Immigrant advocates are hoping to use the anniversary of the march to highlight their struggles for equal rights and show just how much progress the nation still has to make.

On a conference call with reporters, a coalition of civil rights groups including the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and lawmakers announced their plan to push for reform when thousands of people descend on Washington D.C. this Saturday for Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network rally.

 In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands during his   "I Have a Dream"speech. (AP Photo/File)

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands during his “I Have a Dream”speech. (AP Photo/File)

“We will be marching so everyone knows that true justice involves enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” NCLR President and CEO Janet Murguia said. “This is an opportunity for us in the Latino community to show that Dr. King’s words resonated not just with one community but with an entire nation.”

Leaders on the call not only pressed for action but reflected on how far the nation has come with respect to Latino civil rights since 1963. Murguia says that although Dr. King’s words back in 1963 were aimed at the African-American community, he played a key role and was a beloved icon for Latinos as well.

“We know that he inspired Cesar Chavez, who took up the mantle of Dr. King’s non-violence. We march this week to make sure that their sacrifices are honored,” Murguia said.

RELATED: Immigration reform revives Cesar Chavez’s icon status 

Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of immigration reform’s biggest supporters in Congress, says he wouldn’t have his seat in Congress without the struggles of civil rights activists at the March on Washington 50 years ago this week.

Latinos march at a June 2, 1968 rally organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and carried out in the wake of his assassination (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Latinos march at a June 2, 1968 rally organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and carried out in the wake of his assassination (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“I am in office because a quarter of a million people marched down Washington in 1963,” Gutierrez said on Wednesday. “Without the march and the civil rights movement, there would be no Voting Rights Act, there would be no majority Latino district carved out in Chicago.”

For Rep. Gutierrez, Dr. King’s vision outlined a “moral future” for racial harmony — a goal he believes has yet to be reached.

“What Dr. King did is envision a moral future and show us the gap between the reality and the future he envisioned,” he said. “We all looked the other way when Tran picked our flowers and Maria cleaned our hotels. My dream if I were to articulate it today would be…for a common purpose to establish justice.”

RELATED: First Latino leader to give keynote address at Martin Luther King Jr.’s commemorative service

While Latino leaders like Gutierrez and Murguia led the calls for reform on Saturday, African-American and Asian-American groups are also coming together to make a united push for immigration reform. Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, continued to say that while great strides have been made in civil rights in the nation, there still exists a form of second- class citizenship for undocumented immigrants — especially if reform was to pass that did not grant undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

“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,” he said.

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington comes as immigration reform legislation has languished in Congress. House Republicans have rejected taking up the sweeping bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in July, with a pathway to citizenship being one of the main points of contention. House members are pursuing a piecemeal approach to reform instead, introducing a series of bills that tackle individual provisions of reform separately.

RELATED: House Judiciary Chair Goodlatte: “No special pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants

Earlier this week,  top House Republican Bob Goodlatte rejected a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which many immigration reform advocates see as a linchpin to the legislation. According to Goodlatte, the House will proceed with individual immigration bills when legislators return from August recess. They will first take up bills focused on border security, workplace verification, and interior law enforcement.

However, the House is only in session for nine days in September, during which it will have to deal with spending bills to avoid a government shutdown.

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