Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Unity in the Struggle: Immigration and the South's Emerging Civil Rights Consensus

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Unity in the Struggle: Immigration and the South's Emerging Civil Rights Consensus

Article excerpt



In October of 2015, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that banned counties and cities in the state from declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. Though they take many forms, self- declared "sanctuary cities" typically refuse to allocate municipal funds or resources toward immigration enforcement efforts and decline to prosecute undocumented immigrants. The North Carolina bill, HB318, (1) not only mandated local cooperation in federal enforcement efforts, but also prevented local authorities from accepting as valid any identification issued by foreign countries or by local authorities. Because these forms of identification are the only ones held by many undocumented immigrants, the bill took a direct swipe at the state's growing and largely Latino undocumented immigrant population. (2)

Governor McCrory had local support for the measure. Rather than sign the bill in Raleigh, the state capital, he traveled an hour and a half west to sign the bill in front of the sheriffs office in Greensboro, flanked by local law enforcement officials who declared the bill would preserve law and order as well as American values. (3) That a Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislature in the South would pass such a bill may seem unsurprising. After all, many southern states have made similar moves in recent years. (4) Though the measure had significant support, it also encountered widespread censure and resistance. For months leading up to the bill's passage, a coordinated team of immigration activists lobbied for its defeat. Emphasizing the protective effects of sanctuary cities, these advocates argued that HB318 would threaten public safety and strain police budgets. (5) Although this coalition featured a host of immigrant rights organizations and liberal activist groups, some of the most prominent and vocal opponents of the bill were the state's civil rights organizations. Calling on its members to protest the bill, the North Carolina's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) declared, "[O]ur immigrant brothers and sisters are under attack." (6) When Governor McCrory signed HB318 at the Greensboro sheriff's office, bill opponents amassed not at the offices of local immigrant rights groups but at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro. The museum, designed to commemorate the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, became the hub of the movement for immigrant rights.

This embrace of immigration as a civil rights issue is not unique to civil rights groups in North Carolina. Across the South and in other parts of the country, black civil rights groups are increasingly drawing comparisons between the discrimination Latinos face today and the individual and structural racism that has long targeted black communities. This transformation is surprising on many accounts, not least of which is the historical separation of immigration and civil rights both in legal terms and in social movements. Given this historical separation, how did immigrant rights become a contemporary civil rights issue?

This article documents the emergence of an immigration and civil rights consensus in the Deep South, focusing on the particularly compelling case of Mississippi. Part II offers a brief history of racial politics and the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the state and documents the long-standing separation of immigration and civil rights in the legal sphere. Parts III and IV identify the political and structural precursors to the emerging immigration and civil rights consensus in the South. Part V documents the rise of the immigrant rights movement in Mississippi. Parts VI and VII explain two central forces that tie the state's immigrant rights movement to past civil rights struggles: strategic framing and unity conferences. Part VIII concludes by discussing the implications of this alliance for civil rights struggles across the region. …

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