Like Rustin, I Support Immigrants

Published in The Advocate, April 24, 2006 and The Witness, May 9, 2006.

As the U.S. finds itself in a battle over immigration reform, one particular disenfranchised community — African-Americans — has displayed troubling feelings on the issue, ranging from a disquieting silence to unabashed xenophobia. And although the struggles of being black, immigrant, and LGBT overlap in many ways, many African-American organizations and individuals have treated the issues as if they were entirely distinct.

For example, while the NAACP has been outspoken in their advocacy for immigrant rights, the National Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which aided in spearheading the civil rights movement of the 1960s, have not.

And black ministers who misuse the book of Leviticus to attach LGBT people should know how it would guide them on the issue of immigration rights: Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners in a strange land (Leviticus 19:33-34).

… although the struggles of being black, immigrant, and LGBT overlap in many ways, many African-American organizations and individuals have treated the issues as if they were entirely distinct.

The struggle for liberation becomes mired when activists ignore the ways in which the oppression of LGBT people and oppression of immigrants are linked, but Jasmyne A. Cannick did just that in a column published earlier this month on Advocate.com entitled “Gays First, Then Illegals.” In it, she writes:

Immigration reform needs to get in line behind the gay civil rights movement, which has not yet been resolved. I didn’t break the law to come into this country. The country broke the law by not recognizing and bestowing upon me my full rights as a citizen, and I find it hard as a black lesbian to jump on the immigration reform bandwagon when my own bandwagon hasn’t even left the barn.

The African-American community would do well to adopt a more constructive attitude and make progress on immigration rights, remembering the example of Bayard Rustin.

Rustin is most often remembered as the strategist and chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto the world stage. However, he also played a key role in helping King develop the strategy of nonviolence in the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), which successfully dismantled the long-standing Jim Crow ordinance of segregated seating on public transportation in Alabama.

“If our government lacks compassion for these dispossessed human beings, it is difficult to believe that the same government can have much compassion for America’s black minority, or for America’s poor.”

Rustin was not a one-issue man: as the quintessential outsider — a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political dissident, and a gay man — he was concerned with the plight of disenfranchised people around the world. And if he were among us today, Rustin would no doubt be in the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS and oppression of those who are HIV-positive.

There is also little doubt of where Rustin’s energies would be in our struggles surrounding immigrants’ rights. He was a passionate advocate for those displaced by the Vietnam War, arguing that they should be allowed to emigrate to the U.S.

During his campaign to collect signatures from prominent black leaders in support of Vietnamese immigrants, Rustin wrote a New York Times op-ed published on March 19, 1979, entitled “Black Americans Urge Admission of the Indo-Chinese Refugees,” in which he argued that “if our government lacks compassion for these dispossessed human beings, it is difficult to believe that the same government can have much compassion for America’s black minority, or for America’s poor.”

Like Rustin, I stand for the rights of immigrants like my hair-braider, who takes menial jobs in Boston to feed her baby though she was trained as a nurse in the Ivory Coast and her husband was a computer scientist.

I stand with those who believe, as Rustin did, that we pay the debt of justice we owe to immigrants and all marginalized people everywhere through our individual and collective acts of humanity in making a more democratic society.

I stand up for my friend, a student at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, who was recently gang-raped because she is a lesbian. She tells me that the day before the incident one of the assailants read an article from the March 29 issue of the Jamaica Gleaner that said, “If Jamaica is a Christian county and calls itself a Christian country, then gay and lesbian lifestyles must be deemed absolutely immoral and unacceptable.” I stand up for immigrants currently prevented from entering the U.S. because they are HIV-positive.

I stand with those who believe, as Rustin did, that we pay the debt of justice we owe to immigrants and all marginalized people everywhere through our individual and collective acts of humanity in making a more democratic society.

It is time for this country to embrace Rustin’s example and move forward on immigration rights.

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