The 40th anniversary of iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s assassination April 4 was marked with vigils locally and across the country in support of the most pressing civil rights issue of today, immigration reform.
The MLK vigils and the “Two Million Too Many National Day of Action” a day later drew support from unions. The nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, co-sponsored the day of action to stop deportations with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and other community organizations.
Locally, immigrant-rights activists, including representatives of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, gathered at Park Methodist Church in Minneapolis April 4.
Church member Steve Belton, who was 16 at the time of the assassination, recalled that King was in Memphis, supporting sanitation workers who were on strike.
“For him, it was a matter of justice,” Belton said. “If Dr. King were alive today, I believe he might be somewhere like this vigil tonight … because immigration reform is also a question of justice.
“It’s a question of justice for thousands of immigrant workers and their families that look to this country for freedom, economic opportunity and political asylum. They too want to pursue the American dream.”
An estimated 11 immigrants live in constant fear of being deported by the U.S. government, which has carried out nearly 2 million deportations since President Obama took office in 2009, according to a New York Times analysis.
Eder Alarcon is waiting to find out if his name will be added to that list. An undocumented immigrant, Alarcon came to Minnesota in 2006, settling with his mother’s family in Minneapolis and taking on several jobs – kitchen work, construction, factory work, lawn care.
“I didn’t know much about laws; I was looking for work,” Alarcon said.
Fighting back tears at the vigil, Alarcon recounted his experience of being arrested after a police officer pulled up behind him at a gas station and asked for his driver’s license. As a result of the arrest, Alarcon said, immigration agents “are in the process of deciding whether I’m going to stay or go.”
“I don’t know that there are enough words to express what Latinos have suffered,” Alarcon said when asked what he would say to President Obama if given the chance. “You’re always kind of afraid of any interaction with police … or something that could get you deported. But you have to go on living somehow.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the U.S. is in the midst of a “deportation crisis” incompatible with American values.
In a statement supporting the Not 1 More Campaign to stop deportations, Trumka urged the Republican-controlled U.S. House to pass an immigration-reform bill passed last fall by the Senate. The bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers like Alarcon.
House Republicans’ “obstruction of comprehensive immigration reform must end,” Trumka said. “Enough is enough – we need the passage of immigration reform that leads to citizenship and an end to a deportation machine that criminalizes hardworking immigrants while deporting hundreds and hundreds of people a day without even an appearance before a judge.”
“The time is now for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers living here and contributing to our society,” St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper added.
At the Minneapolis vigil, Rev. John Gutterman, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, pointed to several of the Bible’s teachings that encourage Christians to welcome immigrants, not deport them. Jesus, Joseph and Mary “had to flee from the political oppression of Herrod to go to Egypt, where they were welcomed and taken care of,” Gutterman said.
“Our system is broken, and deporting workers, tearing apart families and abusing people to try to make it work doesn’t help,” he added. “This – immigration reform – is the civil rights issue of our time.”