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A 21st Century Civil Rights Movement

Today, Friday May 1, 2009, thousands of people across this magnificent and gorgeous country of ours are taking to the streets to rally for comprehensive changes to our immigration policies – changes that promote family unity, promote public health and safety, and end the police-state approach to patrolling communities of color exemplified by abusive tactics practiced by law enforcement officials like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Phoenix is located.  

From Seattle to Miami, we are coming out in a show of multi-ethnic solidarity with immigrant workers and the communities in which they live. This show of support represents a new moment in American history – the emergence of a civil rights movement for the 21st century. One that brings together the component parts of the American future to demand fairness and equity for all communities of color in the vibrant mosaic that makes up this great country.

As someone working hard to bring black and brown communities together in this struggle, I am pleased to see the diversity on display as leaders across the racial and political spectrum come to the conclusion that the issues facing immigrant communities – good jobs, health care, decent public schools, racial profiling, and enforcement-only approaches to law enforcement – are the same set of issues facing all communities of color and America generally.

The energy on display today is galvanizing, but we must not let it dissipate. One issue being raised over and over at the rallies is how an enforcement-only approach to immigration laws serves to not only criminalize entire immigrant communities and break apart working families, but works to criminalize anyone with darker skin.

The so-called 287g agreements between local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, effectively make local police departments in charge of determining who is and who is not an American. Sadly, few of the targets suspects of being “not American” possess white skin.

On April 7th, I hosted a conference call with Rev. Al Sharpton and over 225 civil rights leaders, elected officials, and community activists drawn from both Latino and African-American communities. On that call, which was focused on the example that Sheriff Joe Apraio was setting in Arizona and how, though he insists he is just targeting so-called “illegal” immigrants, the people who are caught in his dragnet are often native-born citizens. On that call, Rev. Sharpton and I agreed to hold a march in Arizona in June if Arpaio didn't resign. You can sign a petition for us to deliver to him here, in the event that the 21st century Bull Conner chooses stubbornness over justice.

Sheriff Arpaio's tactics are exactly what's wrong with our current approach to immigration policy. They are indiscriminant, they are abusive, and they presume guilt based on your skin color or language, rather than your behavior. We can do better.

When I talk with ACORN members, Latino and African-American alike, they tell me that our current approach is having adverse affects on their neighborhoods, even if they themselves are native-born US citizens. We need an immigration policy that:

• Is respectful of our civil rights and humane immigration law;

• Helps to ensure, not hinder, labor rights and living wages for all workers;

• Discourages the growing tide of local and state-based anti-immigrant legislation that results in the de facto criminalization of communities of color; and

• Provides a path to citizenship for people already in this country. I am gratified and humbled by what is happening today.

Thousands of people are standing up for what is right and demanding a fair and equitable approach to the defining civil rights issue of our day. I am proud to be working together with my brothers and sisters to create a humane approach to the immigration challenge and fight back against the increasing criminalization of black and brown communities. America will be a majority minority country maybe as soon as the next generation. We need to take steps to ensure that by then the civil rights of all Americans are respected and protected.

And it starts today.

Si se puede! Yes we can!

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Bertha Lewis is the CEO and Chief Organizer of ACORN.