Editor’s Note: W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of “Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past,” and is a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He is currently at work on a book on Mississippi’s literary landscape. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The South’s racial binary of black and white has long rendered its Latino citizens invisible. As World War I and the Great Migration shrank its black labor pool, Latinos from Texas and Mexico came to the Mississippi Delta in the 1910s and 1920s to work in its vast fields of cotton. Among the marks that generation of Latino immigrants left on Mississippi are the tamales that are now as much a part of the culinary landscape of the Delta as cornbread and biscuits.
As the civil rights movement opened opportunities for black Mississippians in the latter part of the 20th century, Latinos once again stepped into the breach to do the South’s dirty work. Today it is hard to go anywhere in Mississippi and not hear workers speaking Spanish behind the scenes in restaurants, as domestic help, and on landscaping crews.
The undocumented poultry-plant workers captured in last week’s ICE raids are part of a growing population in Mississippi that remains hidden in plain sight.
In the very state that stood at the center of the civil rights movement, hundreds of people – under the guise of enforcement of immigration violations – have been detained on the basis of being Latino. The last time such a large group was corralled into custody in Mississippi was in 1963, when 400 civil rights marchers were detained in makeshift jail cells in the livestock area of the state fairgrounds. (Several hundred of last week’s detainees, many of them parents of young children, were quickly released.)
When you put up a mirror to the past and the present, what comes into view is that the men and women detained in the ICE raids have been rounded up by the federal government rather than the state of Mississippi – the very same federal government that civil rights protestors looked to for protection (from Mississippi authorities) and to gain their release.
Those still being detained as a result of the ICE raids have no such savior to help them.
This country is being presented with an issue as urgent as those protestors from 1963 who wanted the right to vote and use public accommodations. What these raids reveal is not the need to contain the growth of undocumented workers, but the need for immigration reform. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America have been rendered invisible today, much like the once-ubiquitous black domestic workers in the 1960s. The only difference is that the label “illegal” has been placed on them, turning an entire group of people into social lepers to be shunned.
As Mississippi Today has reported, poultry processing plants in the Magnolia State actively recruited Latinos because they have been willing work for lower pay and under poor conditions. This began in the 1990s, when efforts by African-American workers to unionize were gaining traction. This means that the growth in Latino workers in Mississippi came about not only to fill a need in the labor pool, but also to stymie the progress of working-class black people.
That is why it is up to those who benefited from the civil rights movement to push for immigration reform. What Americans often forget is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowered those black workers to push for a union and essentially made the idea of a white America increasingly unacceptable. It also led to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which removed the “national origins” quota favoring European immigrants, which resulted in a much broader pool of immigrants.
As the Trump administration turns from its targeting of undocumented immigrants to trying to limit the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter and stay in the US, black Americans must never forget that connection or its meaning.
Novelist Elizabeth Nunez recently reminded me of this connection between civil rights and immigration during a student workshop at Howard University we led for the Hurston-Wright Foundation.
“Too many immigrants of color do not acknowledge their debt to African Americans,” Nunez told a group of young writers, many of whom were immigrants or descendants of slaves.
It is a realization she says she came to when writing her second novel, “Beyond the Limbo Silence,” when her character, Sara – a Trinidadian immigrant like herself – is pulled into the civil rights movement and learns the harsh realities of American racism. Over the course of the novel Sara realizes that it was the work of those fighting for civil rights and equality that made her immigration possible.
Since then Nunez says she has felt an obligation to remind other immigrant writers of this debt they owe to the civil rights movement.
Similarly, beneficiaries of the civil rights movement should recognize this connection between civil rights and immigration. Just as the actions African Americans took to gain civil rights and voting rights were deemed illegal and led to jailings and beatings, the desire of immigrants from Mexico and Central America to make a new life in this country and provide for their families should not land them in hostile detention centers and leave their children without parents to care for them.
The desire to be an American should not be illegal. African-American citizens and politicians must come to the realization that there is a line that connects the struggles of Latino immigrants and those of us who are have reaped the benefits of the civil rights movement. We must never forget that we are only one generation removed from being consigned to do the same class of labor as many poor Latino immigrants.
After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 Lyndon Johnson said, “This [old] system violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”
What happened in the ICE raids in Mississippi is just as un-American as our old race-based immigration quota system, as un-American as the way African Americans had to live in this country before the civil rights movement.
Civil rights and immigration have always been connected. Until we begin to see that connection clearly, we will see more raids, more families separated and more detention centers.
America did not turn away when civil rights protesters where jailed and beaten. Americans, particularly the civil rights generation, must not turn its back on the visible yet invisible Latino immigrants in our midst.