Are Immigrants Being Crippled by the Manacles of Criminalization Described in 'I Have a Dream' Speech?

Many Americans have the feel-good line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 speech committed to memory. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Yet few can recite other lines from that speech, particularly what he said at the beginning about the persistence of racism in America a century after the abolition of slavery. 

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King acknowledged that the Emancipation Proclamation “came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of… captivity.” But then he powerfully insisted, “But 100 years later the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Today, more than 50 years since that address and 150 years since the abolition of slavery, these words unfortunately still ring true for people of color, immigrants, and the members of many other marginalized groups. King’s dream – and, for many, the American Dream – remains unrealized.

Consider that even though a mountain of evidence suggests immigrants commit less crime than their native-born counterparts do, there is still a widespread tendency to equate immigration and criminality. 

Echoing King, we might say that the manacles of criminalization cripple many of today’s immigrants. 

This is especially true for those DREAMers who arrived in the United States as young children without authorization. Many politicians have used unjustified fears of immigrant criminality to defeat legislation that would provide them with a path to citizenship. Others have stoked racial fears, either to gain support for harsh anti-immigrant legislation or to further their political careers. 

These politics create climates of intense hostility. 

Activists Protest Against Proposition 187
Activists protest against California's Proposition 187 in 1994. | Creative Commons License

After California passed Proposition 187 in 1994, there were dramatic increases in reports of hate speech, hate crimes, and discrimination by businesses and the police, according to a report by Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)

Arizona’s SB 1070, passed in 2010, prompted anti-Latino sentiment and increased fears in Arizona and beyond, reported the Harvard Latino Law Review.

And in the first week following the election of Donald Trump – who famously campaigned on building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and denigrated Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” – there was a sizable uptick in hateful anti-immigrant incidents nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In short, criminalizing rhetoric creates criminalized realities. This is true for undocumented folks, obviously, but also for Latina/os more generally, who experience increases in discrimination and harassment in these contexts regardless of their immigration status or legal status. One study by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute disturbingly found that “appearing Mexican” was the best predictor of whether someone would be stopped and mistreated by immigration authorities. 

The criminalization of immigrants is also evident in the widespread use of immigrant detention. Even though the immigrant detention system is civil, rather than criminal, and therefore not punitive, the U.S. government detains some 35,000 immigrants per day in facilities that are mostly indistinguishable from prisons and jails, and that have been plagued by systemic abuse. 

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found recently that immigrant detention centers were failing to comply with medical standards, including “ignoring serious medical conditions, overmedicating detainees, failing to administer proper medical protocols and delaying transfer to a hospital setting.” 

That same report documented mistreatment against detained LGBT immigrants.

Esmeralda, a transgender asylum seeker from Mexico, shares the horrific circumstances she faced in immigration detention. | Prism

Moreover, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents showing 200 allegations of sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers across the country from 2007 to 2011. 

Private companies manage many of these facilities. Which means that they have an obligation to their stockholders to keep large amounts of people confined. In fact, there are reports suggesting that the Corrections Corporation of America moved into the “immigrant detention business” in response to decreasing profits. 

Of course, immigrants and their advocates have already been drawing attention to all of these problems. The challenge is that their opponents insist on a strictly legal interpretation of the issue. “Illegal is illegal,” they often say.

American Dreamers
In the film "American Dreamers," a group of undocumented students risk their freedom to walk across America for immigrant rights.

In reality, however, the situation is far more complicated than that. 

Dr. King made this same point in his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he urged his opponents to consider not only the civil disobedience that landed him in jail but also “the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”

He went on to make the distinction between just and unjust law. “A just law,” he said, “is a man-made code that squares with the moral law”; “an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” “Any law that uplifts human personality is just,” he said. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

We know quite well that throughout U.S. history, racism has plagued immigration law and that immigration legislation has always served the interest of elites who rely on the inexpensive labor that immigrants provide.

It is not difficult to make the case that immorality pervades our current system, as well. From exploitation, to demagogical politics, to for-profit confinement, and beyond, the system subjects millions of people to degradation on a daily basis. 

We have relegated King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to history, watering it down as part of a larger effort to treat the civil rights struggle as a victory already won. 

But the struggle continues today. 

When DREAMers stand up and declare themselves “undocumented and unafraid,” they are following Dr. King’s example. They are drawing attention to the immorality of the system; they are asking that the complexities of their lives and the richness of their experience be given appropriate weight; they are asking to be treated as people, not criminals. They, too, want to be judged by the content of their character. 


Top image: U.S civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on August 28, 1963, on The Mall in Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. -/AFP/Getty Images

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