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Standing up for
immigration reform

Standing up for
immigration reform

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In struggling for a way to move forward on the issue of immigrant rights, the African-American community should reflect on the compassionate words of civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, who was both black and gay

As the country now 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 are not mutually exclusive, many African-American organizations and individuals, however, have veered off the road on this issue.

For example, where 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 while the Book of Leviticus is continuously misused by black ministers in their attacks on LGBT people, one passage illustrates how clerics should employ the text to 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."

The struggle for liberation is mired when any activist ignores the interconnections between citizenship status, LGBT rights, and the rights of immigrants, as Jasmyne A. Cannick did in a column published earlier this month on Advocate.com entitled "Gays First, Then Illegals." In it, she wrote, "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."

If the African-American community is looking at how to move forward on the issue of immigration rights, let us remember Bayard Rustin.

While Rustin is most noted as the strategist and chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington that catapulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King onto the world stage, 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.

Rustin was not a one-issue man, because as the quintessential outsider--a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political dissident, and a gay man--he connected to the plight of all disenfranchised people around the world. And if he were among us today, Rustin would no doubt be in the forefront of tearing down the borders of HIV/AIDS.

During his lifetime, he did, however, tear down many borders--and one was speaking out against prohibiting immigrants displaced by the Vietnam War from entering the U.S.

In collecting 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 it he stated, "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 too stand up for immigration reform. My hair-braider, for one, was trained in the Ivory Coast as a nurse and her husband was trained as a computer scientist, but they take menial jobs here in Boston to feed their baby.

And I stand up for immigration reform because the issue is about a 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 stated, "If Jamaica is a Christian county and calls itself a Christian country, then gay and lesbian lifestyles must be deemed absolutely immoral and unacceptable."

And I stand up for immigration reform because it is about AIDS and the current ban prohibiting HIV-positive immigrants from entering the country.

Rustin teaches us 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.

The African-American community, the LGBT community, and indeed, all Americans should heed Rustin's teachings as the country moves forward on immigration rights.

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