Did Coretta Scott King Oppose Immigration Reform?

Conservative Media Mislead To Smear Modern Immigration Reform Movement

Conservative media are turning to a 22-year-old letter signed by Coretta Scott King to accuse immigration reform activists of co-opting the civil rights movement. They deceptively argue that the letter proves Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta would have opposed the modern immigration reform movement.

In 1991, Coretta Scott King signed a letter addressed to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that urged him to reconsider a proposal to undercut penalties on companies that employed undocumented workers that were mandated by the 1986 immigration law. King, along with other members of the Black Leadership Forum -- a coalition of leaders from some of the country's preeminent African-American organizations at the time -- wrote that they wanted an opportunity to study the effects such a repeal would have on African-American and Hispanic workers. The letter stated:

We are concerned, Senator Hatch, that your proposed remedy to the employer sanctions-based discrimination, namely, the elimination of employer sanctions, will cause another problem -- the revival of the pre-1986 discrimination against black and brown U.S. and documented workers, in favor of cheap labor -- the undocumented workers. This would undoubtedly exacerbate an already severe economic crisis in communities where there are large numbers of new immigrants.

The letter added: “With roughly 7 million people unemployed, and double that number discouraged from seeking work, the removal of employer sanctions threatens to add additional U.S. workers to the rolls of the unemployed. Additionally, it would add to competition for scarce jobs and drive down wages.”

The Black Leadership Forum members were clear that their concerns were centered on discrimination -- against minority workers and against immigrants. The letter said nothing about the larger illegal immigration issue. In fact, it didn't even express disagreement with the 1986 immigration law -- that law granted legal status and a pathway to citizenship to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants -- which would have been a clear indication that members were against reform. 

Instead they wrote that they were invested in “the elimination of the root causes of national origin discrimination under the Immigration Reform & Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), as well as discriminatory impact.” 

In a 1990 report on the law, the General Accounting Office found that “substantial” and “serious” national original discrimination was introduced as a result of the law, but that it was “not pervasive.” GAO wrote that it “believes many employers discriminated because the law's verification system does not provide a simple or reliable method to verify job applicants' eligibility to work.” That report formed the basis for a proposal by Hatch and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to eliminate employer sanctions. 

Conservative Media Use Letter To Attack Immigrant Rights' Movement

Conservative media figures are using the Forum letter to claim that immigration reform activists are, as Breitbart.com put it, “trying to co-opt the civil rights messages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to push immigration reform through Congress,” which “seem[s] to be directly contradicting the wishes of the late Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.” Breitbart.com went on to claim that “Coretta Scott King and other black community leaders argued that illegal immigration would have a devastating impact on the black community.”

On her radio show, Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham echoed that claim, suggesting that immigration rights' activists are conflating the civil rights movement with the immigration reform movement. She read from the letter to illustrate her point, adding, “So in 1991, Coretta Scott King was saying on the issue of amnesty what many of us are saying now.”

Ingraham went on to criticize those who spoke in favor of immigration reform at the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, accusing them of “ruining the moment.”

Earlier in the show, Ingraham stated that African-Americans would be the ones who would suffer the most if Congress passed immigration reform, adding that they are “the very people who Dr. Martin Luther King struggled, and ultimately died, to protect and to elevate. That's the sad thing about all of this.” She claimed immigration rights' activists were “confused” to conflate the issues of race and civil rights, even though the issues are undeniably intertwined.

Ingraham went on to say: 

INGRAHAM: But to conflate the issue of equal opportunity, the desire for a fair application of existing law with the issue of allowing exceptions to the law or indeed amnesty for law breakers, and that's where you find the illegal immigration issue involved here, that's something wild right? But I think the left wants everyone to believe out there that the struggle for amnesty is equivalent to the struggle for racial equality and equal opportunity.

Would The Kings Have Supported Immigration Reform?

So was Coretta Scott King, and by extension Dr. King, anti-immigration reform? It is an obvious stretch to say so -- especially if the only evidence put forth is this 1991 letter.

What undermines the theory even further is that in the letter, the Forum members expressed concerns about employers abusing undocumented workers. "[W]e are concerned that some who support the repeal of employer sanctions are using 'discrimination' as a guise for their desire to abuse undocumented workers and to introduce cheap labor into the U.S. workforce," the members wrote.

That's hardly a position you hear from the anti-immigrant crowd. In fact, it's the exact opposite of what you hear. The Forum members' concern for the plight of the undocumented worker is, if anything, an overriding argument for passing immigration reform that is invoked by supporters.

To be sure, while it is hard to know exactly what the Kings believed on the subject of immigration, there is a wealth of information available today that could inform on what their views might have been.

In her paper, “Civil Rights, Immigrants' Rights, Human Rights: Lessons From The Life And Works Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” University of California law professor Jennifer Chacón, who is an expert in immigration law and policy, attempted to do just that.

After quoting from King's “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” she wrote (internal citations removed for clarity):

Migrants who have entered the country without inspection or have overstayed their visas lack lawful immigration status. Because of legal changes over the past decade, they often have no way to normalize their status.[[23]] As long as the law remains unchanged, these individuals will be forced to live in the shadows of society -- illegally. Unsurprisingly, many conversations about the rights of migrants in the United States are thus short-circuited by the question, “What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?” The implication of this question is that all migrants who are out of status or unauthorized are criminal and therefore deserve no rights. This question elides important conversations about why the law is written the way that it is, [[25]] about the role that market demand and historically rooted labor arrangements play in creating the influx of unauthorized migration into the United States, and about the just solution to the problems of a huge and permanent underground population in this country. The question presents the law as immutable and unquestionable and those who break the law as dangerous and undesirable.

King confronted similar problems during the 1950s and 1960s. Those whom he led were challenging unjust laws through peaceful lawbreaking. King's actions remind us that the quest for equality sometimes involves questioning and even defying unjust laws. 

Chacón went on to show how King's “teachings point to the need to integrate the struggle for the rights of migrants with the broader struggle for racial justice and nonviolence.” 

Today's Civil Rights Leaders Favor Reform

There is also enough information available to understand that civil rights leaders of the past -- some of whom were Dr. King's contemporaries -- and those of today support reform. 

In an interview with Fusion, Clarence Jones, who helped draft King's “I Have A Dream” speech, said: 

JONES: The civil rights fight of this era, and people try to force me to put words into the mouth of Martin  King, they try to get me to say that if Martin King was alive, he would be in favor of same-sex marriage. Maybe he would and maybe he wouldn't. 

But what I can say for a certainty is that he was so totally committed to assuring that every human being, every human personality would be absolutely treated equally before the law. Secondly, we should find a basis on the basis of love -- listen to me -- love, compassion, fairness, and elementary decency to structure a pathway to citizenship that will enable our Hispanic brothers and sisters and their families to achieve the full benefit of the rights that citizens have.

Martin Luther King III has cited his father's teachings to editorialize for immigration reform. In a 2011 CNN op-ed criticizing Alabama's restrictive anti-immigrant law, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and King wrote

“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. 

In a 2011 article, the Black Christian News reported that Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King's daughter, planned to work with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference on immigration reform. 

Other civil rights leaders, including National Urban League president Marc Morial, NAACP president Ben Jealous, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and others have expressed support for immigration reform. 

Immigration And Civil Rights Movements Are Interlinked

In an August 26 article on the anniversary of the March on Washington, the Associated Press explained how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which radically altered immigration law, “happened in part because of a hunger for change and equality created by the civil rights movement”:

It was with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the federal government radically altered immigration policy, opening America's doors to the world after decades of keeping them shut to entire geographic regions. That decision planted the seeds for the demographics explosion the country is living in now, a shift that historians say happened in part because of a hunger for change and equality created by the civil rights movement.

The movement “broke through the whole aura of political stagnation that was created by the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and allowed us to imagine another” world, said Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University in New York. “It was the civil rights movement ... that broke through the logjam and allowed people to talk about real issues in our domestic lives.” 

Immigration activist Renata Teodoro, who came here from Brazil as a child, studied the tactics of the civil rights movement and incorporated them into her own activism. The Boston resident has long been a proponent of granting legal status to immigrants who, like her, were brought to the U.S. as children.

The Civil Rights movement, she said, humanized the issues of the day, and by doing so, “that changed the culture, that's what changed a lot of hearts and minds.” 

Ingraham Has Spent 1963 March Commemoration Engaging In Race-Baiting

Ingraham's shallow commentary on the interconnected history of the civil rights and immigration reform movements is unsurprising. She has contributed little that is useful to understanding either issue, exceling instead in demonizing immigrants and attacking those who support reform to accusing progressives of co-opting civil rights. 

In a particularly nasty segment that was widely condemned, she interrupted comments by Rep. Lewis with the sound of a gunshot -- oblivious to the institutional and vigilante violence that terrorized civil rights leaders of that era daily. She later dismissed the criticism, saying she was just having “some fun” and “teasing.” 

Ingraham has also repeatedly promoted the divisive rhetoric of anti-immigrant nativists under the guise of being concerned for African-American workers. It's not a stretch to say that this is hardly a message or a movement Coretta Scott King would have endorsed.