Immigrant Rights Activists Are Obama’s Freedom Riders

Immigrant Rights Activists Are Obama’s Freedom Riders

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Fifty years ago this summer, hundreds of young people organized, rode buses into the deep South and got arrested for challenging Jim Crow segregation in inter-state transit. They were beaten, firebombed and imprisoned. The Freedom Riders knew full well they would not convince segregationist Southern politicians like Alabama’s Sheriff Bull Connor or Governor John Patterson to embrace integration.

Instead, they were pushing President John F. Kennedy, a civil rights ally, to use his power to end segregation in public transit throughout the South. President Kennedy asked for patience, and said he could not unilaterally make the changes they wanted. More young people boarded buses for the South, and filled the jails of Mississippi. Kennedy realized the time to act had come.

In September of 1961, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy went to the Inter-State Commerce Commission, a federal agency, and got the rule changes necessary to end segregation on buses and trains. And the rest, as they say, is history.

President Obama faced a similar challenge and took a step towards justice as well as common sense law enforcement. He had the U.S. Department of Homeland Security make a change that could fundamentally alter how the United States treats undocumented immigrants facing deportation. The department announced it will now prioritize its deportation efforts on those undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, have recently crossed the border, or have re-crossed the border after being previously deported.

What’s more, the department will immediately review the approximately 300,000 immigrants in deportation proceedings and “stay” (not immediately enforce) deportations for those immigrants who are not a priority. Going forward, all federal immigration enforcement agencies will work to keep non-priority undocumented immigrants out of deportation proceedings in the first place. It’s not yet clear exactly who all will benefit, but parents of young children, students of any age, relatives of military personnel, victims of domestic violence and people with strong community ties would appear to now be outside the immediate interest of immigration authorities.

Let’s give President Obama his due, but let’s also acknowledge that immigrant rights activists were the Freedom Riders on this issue. They saw President Obama as an ally, but one who was stymied by intransigent Republicans in Congress—just as President Kennedy was by Southern Democrats. And Obama, like Kennedy before him, said he was sympathetic but not able to help.

Immigrant rights activists come in many stripes. Some began to work behind the scenes laying out exactly why the Obama Administration did have the legal authority to provide “administrative relief,” or those things that the administration could do without congressional action. Others took to the streets, reminding the President of his commitment to justice for immigrants.

Just this past Wednesday, immigrants and their allies packed 500 people into a federal public hearing on immigration laws in Chicago. During the hearing a group of student age undocumented immigrants walked out to the street, sat down and got themselves arrested to draw attention to their cause – risking deportation because of their arrests. As in 1961, young people have been facing arrest in actions around the country. They are known as DREAMers both for the bill which would give them legal status and their willingness to stand strong for social justice.

These young activists were part of a much larger movement of organizations across the country pushing for change. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and a group of advocates from the Fair Immigration Reform Movement organized actions seeking administrative relief under the banner that “change takes courage.” Yesterday, Gutierrez, who has previously criticized the President for an increase in deportations, gave President Obama credit for his courage:

"This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for and that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies. Focusing scarce resources on deporting serious criminals, gang bangers, and drug dealers and setting aside non-criminals with deep roots in the United States until Congress fixes our laws is the right thing to do and I am proud of the President."

Still, much remains to be done—just like 50 years ago. The real victory remains on the horizon as America needs new laws to provide a path to legal status for law-abiding undocumented immigrants, so good people can stop living in fear and contribute even more to our country. That being said, President Obama’s decision looks like a big step forward, but the devil will be in the details. And these details will be determined by how effective immigrant rights groups are at protecting this win. Three steps need to be taken by activists:

• They need to push the administration hard for the most just and fair interpretation of the new rules so that for instance those stopped for a broken taillight are not deported as criminals.
• They need to call their President and Member of Congress to show support for this change.
• They must use every tool in their toolbox to get congressional allies to kill any legislative effort by anti-immigrant nativists in Congress to overturn the president’s decision.

The bravery of the Freedom Riders eventually enabled a black man to run for the presidency of the United States and win. Somewhere in our nation today there is the American-born son or daughter of undocumented immigrants who may also look back on this day from the White House.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy. IMMIGRATION MATTERS regularly features the views of immigration experts and advocates.

 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2011

Let's see how many people are on the side of illegal aliens compared to how many people opposed the injustices of Jim Crow. It's simple. Segregation was wrong, just like crossing the border illegally is. January 20, 2013 can't come soon enough as this is just one more step in Barack Hussein Obama's radical transformation of America that nobody bargained for. Come on, get real, liberals!

Anonymous

Posted Aug 19 2011

Let's see how many people are on the side of illegal aliens compared to how many people opposed the injustices of Jim Crow. It's simple. Segregation was wrong, just like crossing the border illegally is. January 20, 2013 can't come soon enough as this is just one more step in Barack Hussein Obama's radical transformation of America that nobody bargained for. Come on, get real, liberals!

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

It's not the Republicans stopping amnesty, it the CITIZENS! We won't allow amnesty.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

Conservative people still as racist as ever.. now hiding behind the shroud of "legality" and "hesus! History will look harsh upon you just like your with your forefathers

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

Conservative people still as racist as ever.. now hiding behind the shroud of "legality" and "hesus! History will look harsh upon you just like your with your forefathers

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

Conservative people still as racist as ever.. now hiding behind the shroud of "legality" and "Jesus! History will look harsh upon you just like your with your forefathers

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

Good-bye Obama! Good-Bye amnesty!

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

There is a difference between Jim Crow laws (unconstitutional) and immigration laws (mandated by the constitution). Illegal aliens, euphemistically renamed "undocumented immigrants", are ineligible to occupy the White House. Unless you folks want us to abandon our constitution.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 20 2011

re: "segregation was wrong, just like crossing the border illegally is."

Are you being ironic, or just ignorant? Segregation was the law in 1961. It was integration that was against the law.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

US. IS GONNA BE TOO CROWED . WE HAVE ALMOST HALF OF MEXICO HERE. LIVING THE EZ LIFE WORKING OF COURSE BUT LIVING FROM GOV. HAVING A CHILD EVERY YEAR ...BLAMING THE US GOV. FOR MORE AND MORE BUT HE PLEASE THEM. I ASK MYSELF WHY THEY VOTE IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY FOR A GOV. THAT IS JUST THERE HAVING A GOOD LIFE?

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

I THINK USA IS TOO CROWED . WE HAVE HALVE OF MEXICO HERE. THEY COME AND WORK OF COURSE BUT THEY ALSO LIVE FROM GOV. BENEFITS. THEY HAVE A CHILD EVERY YEAR. THEY LIVE A N EZ. LIFE HERE ..SEND MONEY TO MEXICO. I WISH OBAMA COULD LIVE IN THE GETTO TO SEE HOW MEXICAS ARE FOOLING USA! I DONT UNDERSTAND WHY MEXICAS VOTE FOR A GOV. WHO DONT DO ANYTHINH FOR THEM. BUT THEY HAVE USA. THESE PEOPLE HAVE IT ALL CITICEN HAVE NOTHING.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

ooj

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

I completely support the rights of undocumented residents and oppose all forms of racial discrimination. However, Mr. Fernandez overgeneralizes in comparing the Freedom Riders to immigrant activists. True, anti-immigration views are based on notions of racial superiority, and true, Kennedy had to deal with the dixiecrats blocking integration at every turn. The Freedom Riders and immigrant rights activist both pursued a path of nonviolent resistance in the face of violence and discrimination and both sought legislative remedies. However, the Freedom Riders and their allies were murdered, viciously beaten in full view of police and onlookers, and at the risk of certain death if they traveled together in cars after dark. Jailed activists were anonymously bailed out so they could be tortured, murdred and multilated by the ku klux klan. These were not isolated incidents. Being stopped for a broken tailight on a dark road in Mississippi could mean brutal beating, shooting, castration or gang rape and being hung from a tree or dumped in a river.
This is not to diminish the oppression of the immigrants who have courageously fought for their rights. But we must be true to the facts. Like many Black Americans and progressives of all backgrounds, I rejoiced in the election of a man of color and I look forward to the day when a child of immigrants will hold the highest office in the land. But simply being Black, Brown, Asian, Native American, female, or a child of immigrants is not a predicter of character, courage, or sympathy with the victims of America. Many societal factors contributed to Obama's election. I don't know what goes on in his mind, but I have no doubt that he wants to get re-elected.
Let us not forget that the same Barak Obama continues to order drone strikes that have killed nearly 200 Pakistani children, that he has cut community programs, heating assistance and early education programs that tens of thousands of families depend upon for survival, that he has signed off on programs that promote torture and extradition of innocent Iraqis and Afghanis and he continues to support Israel despite their campaign of genocide against Palestinians.
I celebrate this victory and I realize that it means a lot to many people who have suffered for years. But let's not go overboard in praising Obama or view America's history with rose-colored glasses.

--Anonymous

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

Crossing the border illegally is wrong as is proving jobs to illegals, and exploiting them by paying less than minimum wages, making them work extended work shifts and not paying them social benefits on top of ugly discrimination. Yes, liberals we defend the right of any human being to be treated with respect and not as a slave, just like we defended the rights of black people to be treated like human beings and not like slaves. And those that fill up their mouth with angry words will see January 20 come and go. If you ever have eaten at a restaurant, bought groceries at a supermarket or clothes at a store, you have been an accomplice of these policies as well. Be the one to through the first stone...

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

Crossing the border illegally is wrong as is proving jobs to illegals, and exploiting them by paying less than minimum wages, making them work extended work shifts and not paying them social benefits on top of ugly discrimination. Yes, liberals we defend the right of any human being to be treated with respect and not as a slave, just like we defended the rights of black people to be treated like human beings and not like slaves. And those that fill up their mouth with angry words will see January 20 come and go. If you ever have eaten at a restaurant, bought groceries at a supermarket or clothes at a store, you have been an accomplice of these policies as well. Be the one to through the first stone...

Anonymous

Posted Aug 22 2011

People seem to forget that there are two types of immigrants, those that came here legally and those that came illegally. I can't understand why the word ILLEGAL means nothing in this case. I believe that most people (including those who are called racist because they don't agree with certain viewpoints) agree that Documented and LEGAL immigrants should be given all of the rights that legal immigrants have always been granted. Why, with all of the problems this country is facing, should we be concerned with the so called "rights" of people who admittedly came into this country ILLEGALLY? Why are we who don't agree forced to think of these people "undocumented" , which in my mind means illegal, to be polite ?Someone please explain in a rational way..

Anonymous

Posted Aug 23 2011

There is no rational way to explain illegal immigration except that certain people think that US laws do not apply to them. Using the "race card" is just a way to justify their illegal activity.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 24 2011

President Obamas program of change,needs a lot of guts to move forward.Especially when every move he made for the nation is always stymied by the republican party. Afraid that he might make better for the country and his party and not for their party.This country needs immigrants to make economy alive, so that it can create jobs and money to cover the deficit incurred during this year and the coming year.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 30 2011

Vote for Ron Paul, he will stand up for Americans and not self-entitled illegal aliens.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 31 2011

Hey, If that idiot Bush got elected a second term into office after running this country to the ground. Anyone else can.

Anonymous

Posted Sep 1 2011

^ Very good point, with Bush and his war-mongering buddies running the US into debt we need a president to cut federal spending, not one who will plunge us further into debt just to say he created new jobs. Besides Ron Paul, I haven't seen any candidate worth voting for.

Anonymous

Posted Sep 2 2011

EVERYBODY IS A IMMIGRANT HERE IN THE US. EVERYBODY PARENTS CAME FROM SOME WERE ... WHY PICK ONLY ON MEXICAN WHEN THERE ARE WHITE & BLACKS AT LEASE MEXICAN WORK NOT LIKE OTHER THAT JUST KICK BACK AND LIVE ON SEC.8 YEAH THINKS ARE HARD NOW BUT YOU NEED TO THANK THOSE MEXICAN THAT WORK AND DONT CLAM TAXS CUZ THAT FREE MONEY THE STATE & FEDERAL GETS HO YEAH AND THE WHITE MAN DONT PICK BEANS OUT IN THE FIELDS FOR MINIMUM WAGE ECT..ECT U NEED TO THANK THAT MEXICAN .....

Anonymous

Posted Sep 2 2011

EVERYBODY IS A IMMIGRANT HERE IN THE US. EVERYBODY PARENTS CAME FROM SOME WERE ... WHY PICK ONLY ON MEXICAN WHEN THERE ARE WHITE & BLACKS AT LEASE MEXICAN WORK NOT LIKE OTHER THAT JUST KICK BACK AND LIVE ON SEC.8 YEAH THINKS ARE HARD NOW BUT YOU NEED TO THANK THOSE MEXICAN THAT WORK AND DONT CLAM TAXS CUZ THAT FREE MONEY THE STATE & FEDERAL GETS HO YEAH AND THE WHITE MAN DONT PICK BEANS OUT IN THE FIELDS FOR MINIMUM WAGE ECT..ECT U NEED TO THANK THAT MEXICAN .....

Anonymous

Posted Sep 2 2011

EVERYBODY IS A IMMIGRANT HERE IN THE US. EVERYBODY PARENTS CAME FROM SOME WERE ... WHY PICK ONLY ON MEXICAN WHEN THERE ARE WHITE & BLACKS AT LEASE MEXICAN WORK NOT LIKE OTHER THAT JUST KICK BACK AND LIVE ON SEC.8 YEAH THINKS ARE HARD NOW BUT YOU NEED TO THANK THOSE MEXICAN THAT WORK AND DONT CLAM TAXS CUZ THAT FREE MONEY THE STATE & FEDERAL GETS HO YEAH AND THE WHITE MAN DONT PICK BEANS OUT IN THE FIELDS FOR MINIMUM WAGE ECT..ECT U NEED TO THANK THAT MEXICAN .....

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