Walk Like An American

The Marriage Of Two Movements

Immigration Reform and Civil Rights Team Up in Alabama

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

Last week I attended an event in Birmingham that launched a campaign to repeal Alabama’s anti-illegal-immigration law, HB-56. What I found most interesting about the rally was the coming together of veterans of the African American Civil Rights Movement and Hispanics pushing for immigration reform.

The event took place at the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, site of the infamous 1963 bombing that killed four young girls, sparking a series of riots that led to two more deaths. The speakers included U. W. Clemon, the first African American to serve as a federal judge in Alabama. Clemon, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham in 1963 recalled hearing King’s calls to action from the same podium where he now stood. “Injustice anywhere,” he reminded us, “is a threat to justice everywhere, so now-even as senior citizens-we must put our marching shoes back on.”

A high school student who identified only as Y. J. told the audience that he is here illegally, as are his parents. He doesn’t remember crossing the Rio Grande as a toddler on his father’s shoulders, he said. In fact, he claims, he has virtually no memory of his native Mexico. His English is perfect-better, I suspect, than his Spanish. “This is where I grew up, this is the only home I know,” he exclaimed into the microphone. “How can you look me in the eye and tell me I don’t belong here, tell me I need to go?”

As a legal immigrant who is soon to be an American citizen, I could not help but be moved by Clemon and Y. J. Regardless of what you think of the decision made by Y. J.’s parents, his is a plight that he did not choose, and the fear under which he lives now is as unjust as the fear under which Clemon lived as a teenager. Hearing them, just days before Thanksgiving, reminded me of all I have to be thankful for. I have never suffered the injustice that this gentleman and this boy have suffered. And the way they’ve refused to let victimhood take over their lives has inspired me to face my comparatively smaller troubles head on.

America is my country, and I love it dearly. I even dislike it when people call it my “adoptive” country because the word implies that there is some other country to which I might hold allegiance, and that is not the case-like Heidi, the German immigrant I met in South Carolina, I believe that “you can’t sit on two chairs at the same time.” I have but one chair-the one I have chosen, not the one I was born with.

I have worked hard to get where I am, and I won’t pretend that I’m not proud of my achievements. But hearing Y. J. humbled me. It reminded me that I have in a sense been lucky to be able to legally call this my home since the day I arrived. Much like the native-born Americans who take for granted their citizenship, I am guilty of sometimes taking my legal status for granted.

People like Y. J. keep me honest. He reminded me of an important person in my life, someone who I admire, and someone who was once in Y. J.’s situation. One of the smartest men I know-a doctor with an undergraduate degree in Math from MIT, a medical degree from Columbia University, and now a resident at Cornell-was brought here by his parents when he was a young child. My friend, his brother, and his parents-Christian immigrants from the Middle East-were here illegally well into my friend’s teenage years. I see what he has achieved, and what I’m sure the future holds for him, and I think of what a loss it would have been for the U.S. if his teenage fears of not getting his papers before going off to college had come true. Thankfully, he was able to get a green card just in time, and he is now a citizen.

Just like the plight of people like Clemon helped open the eyes of other Americans in the 1960s, the situation faced by Y. J. and others like him is opening the eyes of many legal immigrants and native-born Americans. It makes sense, then, to see the black community here in Alabama advocate for the people that are being unjustly targeted by HB-56.

Professor Mike Innis-Jiménez of the American Studies Department at the University of Alabama told me he sees the rally at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as the marriage of the Black Civil Rights Movement and the immigration reform movement. I think he’s right, and I look forward to seeing how the alliance develops. There is very little precedence of collaboration between blacks and Hispanics-if anything, the two groups have traditionally been at odds. Only time will tell how much of the rhetoric at the leadership level will trickle down to the rank-and-file (most Hispanic immigrants I have interviewed have expressed an antipathy even toward President Obama), but the good news is that things seem to be moving fast here in the slow-paced South-I’m sure we’ll have answers soon.

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*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.