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Immigrants' rights are civil rights

George Gresham President | , 1199 Seiu | 6/6/2013, 4:01 p.m.
President Barack Obama has come out fighting. His inauguration speech and his initiative on immigration...
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

President Barack Obama has come out fighting. His inauguration speech and his initiative on immigration reform, for example, tell us that he is ready to push a progressive agenda, that he is serious about using the momentum from November's election right now.

The president's impassioned speech outlining his immigration reform proposal followed a plan by a bipartisan group of eight senators. The senators say they plan to work up the proposal into a full-scale bill. But Obama also warned in his speech, "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send them a bill based on my proposal and insist they vote on it right away."

But the president's insistence would mean little without our organization and mobilization. We cannot afford to sit this out.

There is little debate that our immigration system is badly broken. That has profound implications for our entire nation, especially the millions of hard-working, law-abiding immigrants who are forced to live in the shadows, unable to share fully in the American dream.

These are our sisters and brothers who care for our children and seniors, who serve our food, clean our homes and offices, mow our lawns. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, "They, too, are America." Except for Native Americans, we are all children of immigrants, including those of us whose forebears were brought here forcibly in chains.

No person on our shores should be denied their civil rights. These rights include protection from discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and, yes, national origin.

We would do well to recall during this African-American History Month that African-Americans have always waged our struggles within the framework of expanding democracy and equality. Every one of our civil rights victories has moved our nation forward. Our struggles have enriched our nation and inspired others around the world.

This year, we also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued during the Civil War, the proclamation was instrumental in winning the war against chattel slavery and ushering in widespread democratic advances throughout the South. Though many of those reforms were reversed with the defeat of Reconstruction, they helped prepare the ground for later victories and foreshadowed the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 19th century, the abolitionist movement and the women's suffrage movement drew strength from each other. In the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement helped lead our nation out of the dark days of McCarthyism by daring to put people in the streets when others had been silenced and driven to the margins of society. Again, the women's and peace movements and later the LGBT, environmental and immigrant rights movements drew inspiration from figures like Dr. Martin Luther King and the late Montgomery bus boycott pioneer Rosa Parks, whose 100th birthday we just celebrated.

Civil rights are the close cousin of labor rights. Those of us in the labor and civil rights movements, together with our allies in the faith and progressive communities, must insist on an immigration bill that guarantees full rights for undocumented workers.