(Thousands of citizens from across the country converged in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 2013 to honor the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 march on Washington. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call))

Opinion: My immigrant family’s debt of gratitude to civil rights pioneers

Regardless what side you take in the immigration reform debate, one fact is undeniable: last November our nation experienced the powerful demographic shift occurring in this country. No doubt, the electoral power of various ethnicities was made possible by the civil rights movement of the last Century.

As we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech, I was reminded of how much immigrant families like mine owe the millions of ordinary civil rights leaders who made courageous sacrifices.

Dr. King’s speech was delivered at the height of the movement to end racial segregation. Boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience to draw attention to the fight for equality and nondiscrimination were answered by beatings by law enforcement and vigilantes. The courage and strength of the movement was empowering and could not be stopped. In 1964, President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act first proposed by President Kennedy.

In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which made last November’s election possible. He also signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the national origin quotas that gave preference to Northern and Western Europeans and opened up this country’s doors to Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. The increasing diversity of our nation is a direct result of the civil rights movement’s demands for racial and ethnic equality.

The law made it possible for my parents, my nine brothers and sisters and myself, to come to the U.S. and become proud and contributing Americans.

In search of economic and educational opportunities for our family, my parents made the difficult decision to leaving our home in Medellin, Colombia and move to Central Falls, Rhode Island to work in the textile factories. We searched for the “American Dream” which Dr. King’s moving speech amplified throughout the globe.  Like civil rights leaders of the past, my parents’ sacrifices were made to ensure that the next generation had a better future.

I was fortunate to have immigrated when I was 3 years old and grow up in the U.S. But I witnessed the discrimination my parents and older siblings faced – ranging from a landlord’s refusal to rent to us to a public school system which had a poor excuse for a bilingual education program.

Despite the economic barriers and discrimination we faced, my parents taught us that our responsibility was to give back to our adopted home. My siblings and I had the privilege of achieving a higher education, and we’ve worked hard to ensure that my parents’ sacrifices – and those of all the civil rights leaders who fought hard and died – were not in vain.  Today, we give back to our communities as educators, healthcare professionals, business owners, and social justice leaders.

My family and millions of other immigrant families owe our accomplishments to the early civil rights veterans and to the maids, laborers, porters, factory workers, and sanitation workers who paved the path for us to come to the U.S. in search of economic and racial equality in this great nation.

That is why I am so humbled and grateful to lead the National Immigration Law Center, an organization founded with the belief that all people—regardless of their race, gender, or immigration or economic status—be treated equally, fairly, and humanely. In our advocacy on behalf of low-income immigrants and their families, we strive to ensure that all people have equal access to justice, education, government resources and economic opportunities, and are able to achieve their full potential as human beings.

In our monumental battle for immigration reform, we confront proposals that would legitimize racial profiling of immigrants and that deny immigrants access to affordable health care and basic human needs. Millions live in fear of racial profiling that will result in law enforcement detaining them for driving while brown as well as being ripped apart from their families through deportations. DREAMers are denied access to education simply because of their immigration status. Immigrant workers are exploited and retaliated for trying to improve their working conditions and defending their labor and civil rights.

For Dr. King and others who bravely fought for civil rights a half-century ago, and as one who benefited from the civil rights movement, I remain inspired by their vision, as I and immigration leaders continue working for an even greater American future enriched by the contributions of immigrants.

We must continue learning from civil rights leaders, working toward racial and economic equality for everyone, and realizing the unfinished promises of the civil rights movement.

Marielena Hincapié is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. 

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