The Undocubus, a busload of undocumented activists from Arizona, rode across the Deep South throughout the month of August to call attention to immigration policies that criminalize immigrants and separate families. The group arrived at the Democratic National Convention on Saturday, 48 years and eight presidential administrations after civil rights activists enacted a similar strategy in 1964.
The legacy of the civil rights movement holds rich implications for contemporary struggles over immigrant rights. In the lead-up to the 1964 presidential election, organizers working in Mississippi hosted Freedom Summer, bringing hundreds of whites from across the nation to spend their summer living alongside blacks and registering them to vote in some of the most violent segregated towns in the South.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which the Undocubus was partially modeled after, brought segregation and the violence that upheld it straight to President Lyndon Johnson’s doorstep. The MFDP delivered a parallel Democratic party of all-black Mississippians to the 1964 DNC to protest the seating of an all-white party. Although the MFDP was not formally seated at the convention that year, the amount of national press coverage was considerable. The nation was effectively shamed into dealing with its violent contradictions, and the following year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, putting a stop to Jim Crow laws that suppressed the black vote.
The civil rights movement relied heavily on three main strategies. There was a strategic use of media to make racist violence visible and morally unbearable, coupled with a reliance on cross-racial solidarity, and a willingness of organizers and participants in the struggle to risk beatings, jail time and worse to challenge repression. Repressive violence caught the attention of the national news media, piping murder and police brutality onto televisions nationally. People from around the country, black, white and otherwise, saw these stories and felt compelled to action. Participants in the Freedom Rides and the Freedom Summer put their lives on the line. Thousands marched in Alabama and Washington. Others donated money and goods to the communities and organizations leading the struggle.
What’s the take-away for those involved in today’s civil rights struggles, including the struggle for immigrant rights?
Direct action tactics must confront power in a strategic way, interrupting “business as usual” in order to push for a win. The immigrant rights movement has mobilized millions, but we are still without justice. Audacious visions of what victory might look like are not the only thing we need. We must also envision and cultivate game-changing actions and alliances. Our actions not only need to stop the show for a day, they must win the hearts of families across the nation.
Many immigrants find the thought of direct action downright scary — the price of arrest often equals incarceration, deportation and a slew of abuses (including violence and sexual assault) along the way. But undocumented people do not have to face this struggle alone. My mother is undocumented, and I would never encourage her to actively risk arrest and deportation. But would I risk going to jail, possibly losing my job or risking future employment and incurring financial costs so that she could have a driver’s license, health insurance and a steady income that enables her to save for retirement? Absolutely.
It wasn’t just the families and friends of black folks who were willing to risk their own well being for African-American civil rights. It was ordinary people, some with no direct connection to the issue whatsoever, who risked even their lives so that others could have a chance at freedom. The price they paid stands as a testament to the strength of a movement whose organizing enabled people to sustain such risks.
Similarly, immigrant civil rights will not be won without broad-based, multi-racial support and alliances. One way to win such support is by making the daily violence that our communities live with known. We must make its weight morally unbearable, too heavy for the public to continue to support or ignore.
To be sure, immigrant communities face a different type of violence now than black folks did in the Deep South in the 1960s and before. But it is no less serious. Our people face death crossing the border. Upon arrival, the job options available tend to be in restaurants, domestic work, agriculture and construction — industries rife with abysmally low wages, sexual abuse, and the possibility of being enslaved, seriously injured or even killed on the job. Our families live with the threat of imprisonment and deportation hanging over their heads every day. I am consistently terrified that the next phone call I receive from my mother will be the last before she gets locked up and sent to Mexico just because she drove herself to work.
We can tell these stories strategically. Developing a messaging framework across sectors of immigrant struggles enables connections between what might seem like isolated incidents of violence. Through retelling our trauma, we can reveal the humanity in events that otherwise would be just statistics, winning allies who were previously on the fence and perhaps pushing those who already agree into greater indignation and action.
Democracy is built on dialogue and participation, and the government cannot continue to penalize people for a failure to deal with the reality of migration. Full amnesty for all immigrants and a real path to citizenship for those who are here, along with those who are on their way, is just one step towards making democracy truly possible. The right to vote will not be a magic ticket out of poverty and oppression; only sustained struggle and a real commitment to shifting the nation’s consciousness around what full democratic participation looks like can get us there.
The legacy of African-American civil rights can suggest parallel trajectories and strategies to be followed, if only we are willing to listen. All of us, regardless of who we are or where we live, have the right to live with dignity. My mother, alongside the thousands of other undocumented people in this country, deserves to be able to leave her house each day without imminent fear of arrest and deportation. It will take a mix of audacity and vision to make this possible, but I am thankful that the road is partially paved already.