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Immigration reform activists seize on 'moral tone' of civil rights movement

Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic call for racial equality in the March on Washington, immigration reform activists are seizing on his "moral tone" in their fight for laws easing a pathway to citizenship.

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“At the core, we are talking about the same thing,” says Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration policy for Hispanic civil rights organization National Council of La Raza. “This is a conversation about the value of a person. It was the core of the conversation then, and it is the core of the conversation now."

This week's anniversary of the March on Washington comes as comprehensive immigration legislation passed by the Senate remains stalled in the House. Leaders in the lower chamber have indicated that they want a “step-by-step” approach that appears unlikely to include the hallmark of the Senate bill: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The yearning for full citizenship is one that black Americans understand deeply, says Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“African Americans understand the inherent power in citizenship,” Henderson said on a conference call for reporters organized by civil rights and immigration activists in advance of the March on Washington anniversary.

“As a community we are especially sensitive to issues involving incorporating individuals into the American system that don’t provide full citizenship,” he added.

Illinois Democrat Rep. Luis Gutierrez, perhaps the most vocal proponent of the legislation in the House, said on the call that immigration advocates should take lessons from King’s approach.

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“They did not talk about public policy very much,” Gutierrez said of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s, adding that political imperatives or economic minutiae weren’t part of King’s appeal for basic human equality.

“We sometimes get lost in those arguments for and against immigration reform,” he said. “What Dr. King did in 1963 was envision a moral future and a moral gap between the reality in America at the time and the moral future he envisioned.”

Advocates are quick to say that their push should not come at the expense of other ongoing efforts by the black community like addressing voting rights, economic inequality and law enforcement practices like New York City’s “stop and frisk.”

Citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act as a major setback for minorities, Martinez de Castro argues that the immigration movement is a continuation of King’s vision, she says, but the door is far from closed on the past era.

“There’s continued progress and struggle that needs to happen on the issues that were fought on in the 1960s, and then we have new and different iterations of those struggles, one of them being the immigration issue,” she said.

But Henderson says the messages don’t conflict.

“I’m not concerned, nor do I fear that the messages of this march will become garbled,” he told reporters. “I think that the diversity of march participants, the importance of lifting up issues like the need for comprehensive immigration reform have given us real purpose.”

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For some, that “real purpose” includes a second chance for those who say they missed their own moment during the civil rights movement.

"Fifty years ago, Dr. King marched on Washington for the rights of those that were marginalized and suffering and oppressed to end segregation for equality,” says Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Rodriguez argues that, in the 1960s, many evangelicals stayed largely on the sidelines even as King and other leaders invoked their faith in God as the underpinning of the civil rights movement.

Now, evangelical groups are at the core of the broad coalition for comprehensive immigration reform, leading a tailored push including ads, protests and pleas from the pulpit.

“This time around, we’ve got it right,” he said.