Summoning Self-Worth Amidst Obscurity

“A just law is a law that squares with a moral law…[An unjust law] does not square with the law of God, so for that reason it is unjust and any law that degrades the human personality is an unjust law.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., could very well have been addressing today’s crisis in citizenship here in the United States of America. Our antiquated laws and quota systems are, at best unfair, prohibitive, and degrading. Public discourse surrounding illegal immigrants and those who have simply overstayed their visas runs the gamut between vitriolic slander and patronizing relegation to the lowest rung of American society. Both groups have kept illegal immigrants, or extralegal citizens, out of the public discourse and unable to campaign for betterment. There are those who would happily accept these immigrants, insomuch as they maintain their status as the thankless workers of our most menial jobs; there are also those who would peg them as would-be terrorists, tax-evaders, drug-smugglers, and an evil black-market population. These are the groups behind the laws, these are the opposition to any movement towards giving rights to extralegal citizens.

In “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” King writes that “…an unjust law is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself…this becomes difference made legal.” The current path towards legal immigration and lawful citizenship is based on luck or birthright rather than the ideals we Americans supposedly hold so dear – that is, education, work ethic, and the family unit. At once, it is painfully obvious that only the rich, the connected, and the politically allied will ever get a chance to enter this nation of so many citizens of birthright. In much the same way that King fought a racial battle in the civil rights movement, this movement towards legalizing extralegal citizens aims at an equality based not on the color of your skin or the color of your country on the globe but on the content of your character, your willingness to be a productive member of society.


This movement faces two defiant obstacles, however, obstacles which Martin Luther King, Jr. himself did not even have to face. The first is to produce self-respect and self-worth in this burgeoning population of extralegal citizens. King had the good fortune of leading a minority with enormous self-pride (after the Harlem Renaissance and their emergence as key entertainers in the 1950s and 1960s). It is difficult, however, to rally around the term “illegal immigrant,” as it is necessarily a negative, demeaning term. However, these people in their defiant desire to become members of our society exhibit the very ideals we hold in utmost esteem in these United States. It is vital to impart respect to these would-be citizens, who have been demeaned and talked-down to by every form of media available in the U.S. Few will respect them so long as they remain subservient, quiet workers of fundamental importance; yet, as soon as they lift up their heads and their voices, the entire nation must needs hear their pleas if only because of the grinding, shrieking sound of a cog in our country’s most necessary gears. Could the United States wage a war at $200 million dollars a day if these 12 million undocumented immigrants recognized their own importance and ceased working? Could the United States continually put off the pressing question of immigration and quotas if it no longer had the luxury of cheap labor in the meantime? Therefore, these immigrants’ self-respect is a vital aspect of any nonviolent movement towards legalization.


The second obstacle is obscurity. King’s civil disobedience thrived on the fact that “…suffering can be a most creative and powerful social force…suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself.” This is inevitably true, but for too long, the suffering of illegal immigrants has been one of quiet acquiescence. All too often, raids and roundups are done quietly, and these extralegal citizens are detained indefinitely and then deported in the dead of night. Scant media coverage and the lack of key public advocates has negated and nullified much of this suffering.

Private suffering is always self-destructive, in that it validates the aggressor and belittles the victim. King writes that, “…unearned suffering is redemptive,” and I keenly understand this to be true. However, that suffering must have its witnesses. The key to transforming this nonviolent movement from one of a silent mass to a vocal, suffering minority is making these indecencies and unconscionable acts very public. Up to this point, most immigrants have suffered more or less alone, feeling cut off from any sort of legal aid, severed from community ties, and hampered by a very real language barrier. This must change if there is to be a sweeping reform of our present system.


“…[P]eace is not merely the absence of some negative force, it is the present of a positive force. True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.” Silent suffering and a lack of self-respect are both forms of negative peace, whereas suffering made public must always reach the ears of true citizens and a people proud of their own worth have always garnered more value in society. As we discuss the means by which we can legalize much of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., we must be constantly reminded that the end is a transformation of the term citizen. Ultimately, any systemic changes with quota, visa applications, and immigration policies must recognize a shift in the way we classify citizens of these United States. It is not enough to simply relax regulations for temporary work visas, because this will never address the pressing problem of citizenship. We must reexamine the future of America and recognize that we need these extralegal citizens every bit as much as they desire to be a part of our nation. Our nation is not so great, nor can we be so arrogant as to suppose that we are done developing. America has always thrived and remained vibrant culturally, economically, and socially as a result of its steady flow of immigrants from all over the world.

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