The recent Civil Rights Summit recognized the role of bold U.S. leaders seeking equal rights and opportunities for all Americans. The triumphs of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration were remarkable and certainly merited celebration, but they were not without setbacks, frustration and compromise. Even as he addressed the nation after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the new law’s precise effect on underrepresented Americans remained unclear. However, one of the most significant changes has been in the faces of those very Americans. Fifty years ago, the faces were primarily African-American. Today, the faces are primarily immigrants.
Immigration reform is the civil rights issue of this generation. As we recognize past success, we must fight until immigration to this country aligns with the ideals of our founding fathers. The challenges faced by Washington, Adams and Jefferson certainly seemed overwhelming at the time, yet, those men persevered.
Nearly 200 years later, at the height of the civil rights movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart–Celler Act) marked the first great victory. The act ended a racist immigration policy that had originally set national origins quotas favoring Northern and Western Europeans and excluded Asians altogether. Some worried the change would alter the culture and demographic mix in the United States. It did; for the better.
Our country began as a melting pot. Our differences have always bound us together as Americans. The Hart-Celler Act deserves recognition as one of the most significant pieces of legislation in civil rights history, and it should embolden today’s lawmakers to take another step in the right direction.
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President Barack Obama leans forward, continuing to speak out for immigration policy reform. He supported the DREAM Act to provide legal status to undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as children. Unfortunately, it has been blocked by Congress. In 2012, Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, exempting eligible undocumented immigrants under 31 from deportation for a renewable two-year term. A nice move forward.
Like most important matters, immigration reform isn’t without struggle. President Obama has been criticized for his administration’s record number of deportations. Some say he’s reacting to Republican criticism. Others say the numbers are misleading. Either way, it feels like a step backwards.
Let’s not forget, he’s still a politician. He mentioned that presidential advisors warned President Johnson that Hart-Celler could risk “derailing the rest of his domestic agenda.” And conspicuously, he himself avoided the topic of immigration in his speech on the Civil Rights bill. These setbacks are frustrating. They may seem debilitating. But, we can’t give up. As President Obama said last week, “Progress can be hard, slow and frustrating. But,” he continued, “we have to believe in the power of government to bring about change.”
We have achieved some notable progress on immigration reform. These successes should propel us to continue fighting for underrepresented voices. Following the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon B. Johnson said, “America does move forward and the bell of freedom rings out a little louder. We have come some of the way, not near all of it.”
While the recent summit recognized LBJ’s legacy in civil rights, today’s leaders must recognize that there is still so much to be done. The summit celebrated the 50th Anniversary of what has become the calling card of both the triumphs and struggles of the underrepresented. We shall overcome. But we haven’t yet. Hold your elected officials accountable. Tell them what you think of the legislation they’re trying to pass. The bold actions of a few great leaders altered the course of history. The words of a few great citizens can contribute to change just as powerful.
Noelle London, Jamie Olson, Amelia Pittman, and Andrew Uhler are graduate students in Global Policy Studies at UT-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs