“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail.
As we commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., a great civil rights leader and one of the most important Americans ever born, we must acknowledge that the lessons he imparted have fallen by the wayside in recent years. It couldn’t be more apparent than in the current treatment of people of color and Latinos of every stripe—American born, immigrant and undocumented—in today’s politically charged environment.
Last year over 2,500 immigrant children, the majority Latino, were separated from their families at the border. They were detained indefinitely inside fenced-in cages in makeshift detention facilities. A recent Office of the US Inspector General report found the total number is even higher. However, the exact number of children impacted is unknown.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, an open letter that Dr. King wrote to eight clergymen who sympathized with King but disagreed with his methods. King argued that an unjust law was not worth following. When he wrote the letter, King was jailed for organizing protests against Alabama’s Jim Crow laws that upheld segregation. Dr.King’s sentiment however is universally applicable.
King didn’t advocate breaking the law on a whim. He made a distinction between laws that uphold society and laws that kept others in a position of power, often violently, over others. While family separation isn’t the law, but a policy directive initiated by President Trump’s administration. It is clearly a rule put in place that degrades human personality.
The directive is an unjust “law,” put in place by a President who began his political career by supporting xenophobic theories that Barack Obama lied about his citizenship and his victory was illegitimate. The fact that such a directive has been carried out with zeal and intensity is forever a blight upon our nation’s history.
The current obnoxious push for a border wall, a racist campaign tactic that has gone off the rails, created the longest government shutdown in modern history (30 days and counting). While not yet approved by Congress, a portion of which will not turn over the $5.7 billion needed to build it, such an initiative has severe fascist and racist overtones. Especially since the made up “crisis” at the border isn’t supported by factual data. Lawmakers approving the building of this wall would create a divide between America and our neighbors to the south. It’s also a tremendous waste of government resources. Its creation would be the biggest example of an unjust policy to date.
Unfortunately, these are not the only examples of America traveling down a dark path. Away from the light of Dr. King’s message. ICE has gone from protecting borders to a Gestapo. In 2017, a Trump executive order gave the agency the right to detain and deport at their discretion. Criminals and non-criminals alike are being rounded up. In December of 2018, ICE actually arrested 170 immigrants who came forward to sponsor detained migrant children. The majority had no criminal record, according to the agency. Everyday Latino Americans are also being swept up in this enforcement. Just ask Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a US Latino Marine veteran who was released to ICE custody after being arrested on disorderly conduct a few weeks ago.
These laws and directives are taking aim at Latinos and other communities the government views as inherently illegal or threatening. Last summer Trump tweeted a warning that “Illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they might be,” would “pour into and infest our country” if Democrats are allowed to influence immigration policy. Such dehumanizing language would surely have no place in the America that King envisioned.
As we join together in celebration of the spirit of Dr. King. It is incumbent upon us to question whether or not Dr. King would be satisfied with the progress we’ve made as a nation since his passing. While a great deal of progress has inarguably been made in the last 50 years, there is still a lot more work to do. Especially with regards to systemic racism and we need to be honest with ourselves about that fact. After all, if we are to honor his memory, it would be more appropriate to do so with sincere soul searching, however uncomfortable, than by paying lip service to his name once a year.