Politics & Policy

How MLK Would Have Responded to Our Immigration Debate

Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in 1963 (Photo: National Archives)
Chances are, he wouldn’t be blind to the negative effects of mass immigration on the black community.

A core concern among immigration-control advocates has always been the disproportionate negative effects mass immigration has on black America. That concern takes on added significance as we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was singularly in tune with the needs of the black community. How King would have responded to today’s immigration debate is an interesting question with an answer that can’t be known for certain. After all, our current mass immigration system began to be implemented only in 1968, the year he died. According to his former lawyer and close adviser Clarence B. Jones, however, it’s clear what King’s response would have been. In his 2008 book What Would Martin Say?, Jones explores how the civil-rights leader might have reacted to the hottest contemporary political issues, immigration among them.

As a writer in The Atlantic observed in 1992, two years prior to the passage of California’s Proposition 187, which blocked public benefits to illegal aliens (with support from a majority of blacks), “even if these communities [blacks and Hispanics in Los Angeles] make common political cause, do they have any choice about economic competition?” After all, the essay continued, “the almost total absence of black gardeners, busboys, chambermaids, nannies, janitors, and construction workers in a city with a notoriously large pool of unemployed, unskilled black people leaps to the eye.” That “total absence” would have certainly leapt to King’s eye, in Jones’s telling.

Before he died, King had been a big backer of Cesar Chavez, the late-Sixties farmworkers’ organizer and one of the earliest campaigners against open borders. Right after King’s death, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, his replacement as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, marched with Chavez in a protest against illegal immigration over its suppressive effects on wages and its weakening of unions. According to Jones, King “would have agreed with” Chavez’s attacks on, what Jones calls our “wink-wink-nudge-nudge open border,” which “allows countless numbers of illegal immigrants to flood across and either take or undermine jobs done by Americans, especially brown and black Americans.” This shouldn’t be surprising, at least to those who know their labor and civil-rights history. The desirability of keeping cheap foreign labor out of the black labor market was a common refrain among King’s forebears, such as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Those concerns persisted after King’s death. Notably, they were raised by his wife Coretta, who along with the NAACP in 1990 pleaded with Senator Orrin Hatch not to go forward with a plan to gut the prohibitions against illegal-alien hiring that had been put in place six years earlier by the Immigration Reform and Control Act. She was successful. Contrast this with the deafening silence from black leaders today on the consequences of mass unskilled immigration. King, on the other hand, Jones assures us, “would not be so quiet.” According to Jones, King would have insisted on “unambiguous language, over and over, until the message had been heard, that blacks had worked too hard and too long to achieve the kind of economic opportunities that go along with racial justice.”

As for today’s so-called immigrant-rights movement, writes Jones, King would have found its attempt to claim the mantle of civil rights to be an affront to his people’s genuine sacrifices. Jones imagines that King would’ve told groups such as La Raza, “I find it offensive and insulting when you wave Mexican and Salvadoran flags and compare yourself to civil rights demonstrators — black American citizens — who were denied their inalienable rights as Americans by those who hated them only and entirely because of their skin color.” “Amen,” immigration-enforcement advocates would say.

Jones believes that King likewise would have decried illegal aliens’ demanding the rights of citizens as “moral brazenness.” One such right currently being demanded is the right to drive a car. That is the subject of a lawsuit in Oregon in which the Immigration Reform Law Institute, where I work, is involved. Those “without the legal right to be here,” Jones believes King would argue, yet who “demand that Americans treat them as though they were decorated soldiers or fighters for constitutional rights” are “dishonest, ignoble, and unworthy.” And to those who use “racism” to describe the American immigration system (the claim made in the Oregon case), King would rightly ask, “Then what word is left for the Bull Connors of the world?”

King would have recognized, and cared about, the effects that America’s immigration addiction has had on black employment.

A central claim for today’s open-borders movement is that breaking immigration law is actually an act of morality and that laws benefiting workers currently here are somehow inherently unjust. But King, who operated at a time when segregation and poll taxes were the law, would likely think the real injustice today is, as Jones imagines King would put it, that the practical application of our immigration laws “favors those who have managed so far to evade arrest.” A specific example is the growing phenomenon of sanctuary cities. Jones thinks King would have reproached black leadership who support such policies with this exhortation: “Before you make it easier for the unfortunate of other countries to come here, consider the cost of your actions on the less fortunate of the country whose Constitution you’ve sworn to uphold.”

King would have recognized, and cared about, the effects that America’s immigration addiction has had on black employment, both at the lower and higher end. Unfortunately, if alive today he’d be almost entirely alone in that. Today’s black leaders are completely silent on these effects — from the Congressional Black Caucus, to Black Lives Matter, to the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a black labor/pro-amnesty group oddly enough named after one of the staunchest immigration-restrictionists in black-unionist history.

This Martin Luther King Day, black leaders ought to think very seriously about who they represent and why and ask themselves, on the issue of mass immigration, “What would what Martin say?”

Ian SmithIan Smith is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a contributing blogger with immigration enforcement advocate, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.


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