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Alabama's immigration law: Jim Crow revisited

By Martin Luther King III and Richard Trumka, Special to CNN
updated 11:23 AM EST, Thu November 17, 2011
Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement began in Alabama, and the authors say the state is denying civil rights again.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement began in Alabama, and the authors say the state is denying civil rights again.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: MLK began fight for civil rights in Alabama; now state is denying rights again
  • Alabama's strict immigration law terrorizes families, they say; conflicts with our values
  • They urge Obama to end laws that use racial profiling, target immigrant communities
  • Writers: We need to focus on comprehensive immigration reform and fixing economy

Editor's note: Martin Luther King III is president and chief executive officer of The King Center in Atlanta. Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.

(CNN) -- It is one of the painful ironies of our time that in the same season Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory is finally honored with a memorial in our nation's capital, the state where he began to lead the civil rights movement is once more the center of an ugly conflict over racial injustice.

The passage of Alabama's anti-immigrant legislation, HB 56, invokes inhumanity reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. And the police state it has created is equally cruel.

If the law stands, children will be denied admission to public schools if they can't prove their citizenship, and schools will be turned into enforcement operations. Poor people of color will be ripped from their families if they are caught in public without their papers in order. Samaritans and people of conscience who employ, harbor or help undocumented workers will be severely punished.

Already, opportunistic corrections firms are standing by to pocket money off prejudice and terrified families are selling off their meager possessions and fleeing the state.

Our immigration system is broken, but our answer as a nation cannot be to terrorize and criminalize families. Our immigration policy must be consistent with our core values and our moral obligation to treat all people with dignity and respect.

Martin Luther King III
Martin Luther King III
Richard Trumka
Richard Trumka

For all the differences that divide us, we are in this together. In these harsh economic times, we are more than ever wearing the "single garment of destiny" of which King wrote in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

When communities suffer discrimination and degradation, we all suffer. When some citizens are denied fair treatment, we are all denied. When any group of workers can be underpaid and overworked, all workers are victimized. When families are threatened if they dare organize or speak out, America is threatened.

"Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application," King also wrote in "Letter From Birmingham Jail," where he was imprisoned for nonviolent civil disobedience. Much about our nation's immigration practices echoes that observation.

We call on President Barack Obama to oppose and terminate all programs -- including collaboration between state and local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security -- that result in racial profiling and target immigrant communities.

Alabama's immigration battle not over yet
Tough new law forcing Hispanics to flee

Our focus should be on comprehensive immigration reform. And we must focus simultaneously on fixing our broken economy, an economy that is forcing 99% of the people to compete for a smaller and smaller piece of the receding American Dream.

We also hope the good and righteous people of Alabama will rise up, oppose and repeal the abomination that is HB 56. Theirs is the state where our historic civil rights movement began, where King and his followers developed a model of nonviolent activism that changed not only Birmingham and Alabama and the South, but our entire nation.

This week, a delegation of African American labor and civil rights leaders are visiting Alabama to support Latino families who face hostilities all too familiar to what King saw in 1963. Perhaps the ugly problems in Alabama can once again play a part in building a new understanding about the strains of division that weaken the fabric of society for all of us.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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