I was asked to speak at a rally opposing Alabama's new anti-immigrant law, HB56, and supporting the DREAM Act. Students wore caps and gowns, so I decided to give the commencement address I would give if the DREAM Act actually passed.
It is an honor to speak to you, class of 2011. You have my congratulations and respect for overcoming so much to be here today and prepared to graduate. You and your families have sacrificed more and worked harder than most in this country for you to achieve and succeed. When people speak of the American dream, they are speaking of people like you, who work hard and give up transient pleasures to make the future better for themselves and their families.
You follow in the footsteps of so many immigrants who came to this country seeking better lives for themselves and making life better for us all. Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are the words of Emma Lazarus' sonnet, the “New Colossus.” Unlike the Colossus of Rhodes, she tells us, our Colossus welcomes “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is here, she says, that “the homeless, tempest-tost” will find a home where they can prosper, thrive and achieve. She tells us that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door that gives entry to the United States.
It is a cliché to say that we are a country of immigrants and that immigrants have made us what we are, yet it is true. A catalogue of all who have preceded you and contributed to our national fabric would be almost endless. Some came seeking a better life, others came in chains. Some became famous, many more are nameless and unknown, yet all made their contributions. Some tilled the land, some labored in the mines and mills, others were artists, doctors, inventors, scientists and teachers. Whatever they did and wherever they came from helped make our country – yours and mine – vibrant.
The history of the United States is not, of course, a long. steady climb to that shining city on the hill. It was also built on the genocide of our native peoples, the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of the poor. We have a dual legacy centuries long; one of conquest and exploitation, the other of liberation and growth. I trust that you, my friends, are the inheritors of the latter and that you will strengthen and extend that legacy.
But along with my admiration and great hopes, you have my sympathy for entering the job market during the worst economic crisis this country has faced in more than three-quarters of a century. On the same day, recently, I read two articles in the newspaper. The first said second quarter corporate profits were up and had exceeded expectations. The second announced that unemployment in our state had risen 1 percent.
Now, I have been talking about what you have achieved and what you can achieve as part of a special group of young people, beneficiaries of the so-called DREAM Act. So, is it a digression to talk about corporate profits and unemployment? “What does that have to do with immigration?” I hear you cry. And that is what I want to talk about now. It is not nearly so upbeat as what I started with, but I am not discouraged and you should not be either. Rather, consider this a challenge for us to do better and to make our country do better, indeed, to make our country a place that deserves people like you.
Let me suggest, class of 2011, that rather than starting the discussion of immigration with the tired old refrain that the system is broken and must be fixed, we start by debunking the myth that we first have to secure our borders.
Make no mistake – the law makes our borders porous. Thanks to NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], the WTO [World Trade Organization], and other free trade agreements, transnational corporations are free to cross borders with impunity and without any regulation by US laws. They go where the labor is cheapest and their profits greatest. They find tax shelters around the world and pay little or nothing in the US. They sell weapons and materiel for the US to wage its imperialist wars overseas, but pay no taxes to finance those wars. And our country is left with mounting debt; ever greater disparities between the rich and the rest of us; and a shredded safety net inadequate to catch the poor, unemployed, underemployed and disabled as they fall into penury.
And who is blamed for this? You, my friends, you who overcame the disadvantage of not being documented, yet have made it through US schools and colleges. Your parents, who have had taxes withheld, but cannot file tax returns to get the refunds they are due or collect Social Security when they can no longer work, who have worked long hours at low pay, who have endured hostility and scorn so you could thrive. Our legacy of liberation and growth is threatened by that of conquest and exploitation and the demonization of immigrants is where the exploiters and conquerors have made their greatest headway in deluding the people. Transnational corporations reap record profits and their officers collect million-dollar-plus bonuses while they cut wages, cut jobs and bust unions. And for cover, they attack immigrants for causing the lower wages and lost jobs for which they are responsible.
With all of this, the alleged liberals in Congress have offered the DREAM Act. And what exactly does it provide? That for those of you who came to this country too young to have a choice, who grew up attending its schools, hanging out in its malls, watching its TV, listening to its music and having a command of English that exceeds your command of your parents' native tongues – in short, for those of you who are every bit a part of this country as am I, you are offered a “path to citizenship.” That is to say, you are offered several years of indentured servitude, whether through college without federal financial aid or joining the military and being part of one of the several rich men's wars and poor people's fights the US is engaged in, with the hope at the end of first getting a green card and then paying to become citizens of the country of which you are an integral part already.
I join with you in calling for passage of the DREAM Act and applaud you for stepping forward to demand it, but let me be clear. The DREAM Act is not some wonderful benefit and great advance. It is less than the least this country owes you. It is sad, indeed, that your supposed supporters say that is the best they can offer, and sadder still that we have not even won that tiny a victory. Martin Luther King famously said that, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We know where Scott Beason and Joe Arpaio stand. We should really ask, as La Raza did, where do people like Barack Obama stand, who say they support you, yet deport undocumented immigrants in record numbers.
On behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, I wrote a letter published in the Birmingham News a few weeks back in which I condemned Alabama's new immigration law for violating fundamental human rights. Several responded on the newspaper's blog with the argument that those here in violation of US law are, by definition, illegal immigrants and criminals and that the discussion should end with that. To them, I suppose, Dred Scott was just a piece of property because the law, as enunciated by the Supreme Court, held that African descendants had “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” To them, Rosa Parks was just another lawbreaker deserving of whatever sentence she got (they will tell you now that she was a hero but, be assured, in 1955 they would have called her a criminal). They will tell you that Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest political leader of the 20th century, was nothing more than a terrorist. Incidentally, that is what the US government, which had him on the terrorist watch list as late as 1988, labeled him officially for two decades.
You, my friends, are heirs to our country's contradictory past. You are heirs to its noble tradition of bending the arc of history ever more sharply toward justice and human rights. You are heirs to that tradition where the tree of liberty has grown and flourished, irrigated by the blood of too many martyrs. At the same time, you are heirs to a vicious legacy of intolerance, scapegoating and, let us be frank, racism, which has allowed the few to grow rich beyond measure and, now, is plunging millions in this country into poverty while killing and exploiting others around the world. The face of racism in this country today is the jingoist anti-immigrant fervor that surrounds us. When people speak of “illegal immigrants,” the image they are conjuring is of Latinos and Muslims. If you need proof, you need only look to what happened in our courthouse last Monday, when deputies stopped and questioned all those who looked Hispanic, including witnesses subpoenaed to testify and at least one courthouse employee. However much he wants to deny it, Scott Beason's law institutionalizes profiling and legalizes racism.
Too many poor people, who should be your natural allies in opposition to the power and dominance of transnational corporations and those who do their bidding in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures throughout the country, Republican and Democrat, are deluded into thinking you are the enemy. In the words of Malcolm X, they have been hoodwinked. They've been took. It is our task not just to fight for the dignity and rights of those who have come to this country without documents looking for better lives. It is our task, difficult but essential, to persuade those who now condemn you that, so long as the poor are divided, the billionaires will increase their wealth and power, denude the earth and destroy the environment at the expense of the rest of us who will face only mounting debt, fewer and lower-paying jobs, homelessness and hunger.
While I think I am being realistic, I am by no means pessimistic. I have confidence in you and I have confidence in the vast majority of citizens of this country. The road ahead may be long and winding, with potholes and detours along the way, but that shining city on the hill really does await us.
So, class of 2011, go forth with your heads held high and be prepared to fight for what you are due. I cannot promise when or how success will be achieved, but I can guarantee that, if you do not struggle, nothing will change. And know that you are not alone and that our ranks will swell. I leave you with the words of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who lived to see a much better day:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Do not submit quietly to any injustice or any wrong. Do not yield to tyranny. Agitate, agitate, agitate!
Si se puede!
Hasta la victoria siempre.