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.”
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.