Martin Luther King and Immigrants’ Rights

I choose to give my life for those who have been left out … This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way…. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from “The Good Samaritan,” 1966

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform and the anti-immigrant activists who oppose it have one thing in common: both invoke the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. to support their positions on immigration. Today the immigration question, particularly regarding amnesty and pathways to full citizenship, is perhaps as divisive a force in American life as it has ever been, with leading presidential aspirants actually demonizing immigrants generally as criminals, deviants and undercover terrorists. Even more alarming is the call by several candidates for the deportation of undocumented immigrants en masse. In this season of celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, it is important to revisit the factors that animated him in order to protect his memory from being misused to serve purposes that he would never embrace.

The differences between pro- and anti-immigrant positions are stark. For instance, for the King birthday observances in 2014 and 2015, Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), an anti-immigration group, released a televised ad criticizing President Obama’s executive action granting work authorization to a sizable number of America’s undocumented immigrants as a betrayal of King’s vision for America. With more than a hint of negative judgment it asked, “Was that Dr. King’s dream?”

In his book, What Would Martin Say?Clarence Jones, one of King’s lawyers and a close advisor, argues that King would vehemently oppose any form of amnesty for undocumented immigrants:

He’d say, ‘If you’re in this country illegally, have you come here in order to protest what you consider an ‘unjust law?’  If you haven’t, then for whatever other reason you’re here, even if it’s to make money for your sick child, which is as good a reason as there is, then you’re just violating the immigration laws of this country and deserve no more consideration from the authorities than does a thief.

Among those who claim King’s legacy as supportive of immigrant rights is the National Immigration Law Center. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington its executive director, Marielena Hincapié, said of King:

We share his dream that all people — regardless of their race, gender, or immigration or economic status — be treated equally, fairly, and humanely… that all people have equal access to justice, education, government resources and economic opportunities, and are able to achieve their full potential as human beings.

An African-American activist pastor put it this way, “Dr. King invoked the truth … that all humans ought to be treated with a certain dignity. It would be natural for us to look to him as an example for fighting for a just cause.”

Despite his appropriation by both sides of the immigration question in America, apparently Martin Luther King never directly addressed the issue; in his day it was not perceived as the major crisis that it is today. Still, we may with a good deal of confidence project what his position on immigration might be at this juncture in that we know the factors that would shape and inform his thinking on it; they are the same factors that shaped his thinking and his activism on every public issue he addressed. These factors include the witness of the Bible, in this case biblical pronouncements about the treatment of immigrants by citizens of a country not their own, and King’s belief that every human being is imago dei — made in the image of God. These factors were undergirded by the foundational ethical teachings of the Bible to which King appealed throughout his social ministry — justice and love.

One of the most important themes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is hospitality and care for the ger, a Hebrew term variously translated as sojourner, alien, resident alien, stranger, foreigner and immigrant. Several of these terms for ger will be used interchangeably here. The Bible gives specific directives on how the ger — the immigrant, the resident alien — should be treated. Among them are the following:

Society has a sacred responsibility for the welfare of immigrants:

• “[God] makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; [God] loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothing. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

• “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor’” (Zechariah 7:9-10).

• “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien” (Leviticus 23:22).

Immigrants are to be treated with justice and fairness:

• “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

• “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien” (Deuteronomy 1:16).

• “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien” (Leviticus 19:33).

Regulatory protections are to be provided for immigrants:

• “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other citizens or aliens who reside in your land” (Deuteronomy 24:14).

• “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that … the resident alien may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12-13). 

Immigrants are to be accepted as social equals:

• “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

• “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Moreover, in the Greek New Testament believers are often characterized as “aliens” and “strangers” (xenoi), in the sense of immigrants in a new land (of faith), as in 1 Peter: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles…” (2:1). The Letter to the Hebrews offers a metaphysical reason for treating immigrants with care: “Do not neglect hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2)

These are among the biblical teachings with which King, a third generation preacher, was imbued from his youth. Although as far as we know King never publicly spoke about immigration issues, at least as they are presented today, what his positions might be today can be gleaned from his writings. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King wrote:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

In that letter King specifically made reference to charges that protest activities in Birmingham by the non-resident King made him an interloper, an outsider come to make trouble. But his words also hold a profound significance for America’s immigration question: that when it comes to human rights and welfare, to efforts to achieve justice and a decent quality of life, no one should be excluded: “… inescapable network of mutuality… a single garment of destiny… never be considered an outsider anywhere…”

King truly believed in “love your neighbor as yourself.” It was his view that it is people’s humanity that is primary, not their nationality or geographic origins; that one’s humanity and claim to humane treatment cannot be diminished by a lack of official documentation; and that neither possession of documents nor the lack thereof had anything to do with the right to pursue a decent life and living for oneself and one’s family. King’s radical inclusivity is reflected in a September 1966 telegram he sent to Cesar Chavez, head of the United Farm Workers, a union largely comprised of undocumented immigrant workers. King wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality…. Our struggles are really one: a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

What can we conclude from all of this? We cannot know for sure what specific policies King would propose or support, but there are several things that we can venture with assurance: that King would condemn the demonization of undocumented immigrants, the name-calling and general characterization of them as rapists and criminals and terrorists; he would condemn the objectification of undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” a term that fails to reflect their humanity and human worth; and he would reject the narrow, legalistic nationalism of the type Clarence Jones attempts to pin on him. But first and foremost, we know that he would have the same measure of concern for the welfare and security of undocumented immigrants that he held for all people of every rank, religion, race and nationality: that they and their children should have adequate food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and suitable life-chances.

In other words, Martin Luther King would support any orderly and well administered immigration policy that honors and respects the integrity, wellbeing, and right to liberty, justice, equality and the pursuit of happiness for all people within our borders; and that in humane fashion considers the need for the safety of asylum for those who flee to our borders from danger, death and destruction. As for immigration policies that do not in substance honor the human personality in all these ways, one can be assured that the Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “I choose to give my life for those who have been left out” would stand against them with all of his being.

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