From Jim Crow to Juan Crow

In 1960, four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina held a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter, a historic event which proved to be a key spark in the Civil Rights movement. Fifty years later, young people are sitting in once again and challenging institutionalized injustice.

This time, however, the target is not Jim Crow, but what some have referred to as Juan Crow. Like its pre-Civil Rights cousin, it, too, is effectively a system of apartheid. It is one that denies “illegal” immigrants many basic rights—no matter how long they have been present in this country. And just as in the 1960s, fundamental decency—one informed by an expansive notion of human rights—requires a dismantling of this unjust system.

This era’s would-be Greensboro took place at Senator John McCain’s Tucson office—on May 17, the 56th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education decision. Protestors called on McCain to support the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants of “good moral character” who arrived in the country as children a conditional path to citizenship.

The action led to the arrest of four youths for trespassing. As three of them are unauthorized immigrants, Pima County sheriffs subsequently turned them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE released them the next day, but they will have to appear before a judge at a later date, and face possible deportation to their countries of birth.

That the young people risked such draconian punishment to champion what is ultimately a very modest legislative measure speaks to the deep-seated frustration among immigrant communities and advocates in a climate of growing repression of non-citizens living in the United States, and the dim prospects for significant change. Under the Obama administration, the number of deportations, for instance—and with them, divided families—has grown significantly over the G. W. Bush years. Meanwhile, the likelihood of a far-reaching legalization program seems increasingly distant.

The DREAM Act should be a political slam-dunk. The bipartisan legislation would require undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete a bachelor’s degree or two years in the military as part of a 6-year-long process that would ultimately culminate in citizenship. Yet despite 118 co-sponsors in the House and 36 in the Senate, the bill remains stalled—and, with it, the lives of countless full citizens-in-waiting.

Like immigrants in general, the bill has become a political football, one played according to the electoral winds. Thus, John McCain, who voiced strong support for the DREAM Act in 2007, has since reversed his position. For such reasons, immigrant rights activists, like their forebearers in the Civil Rights movement, have found it necessary to take direct, non-violent action to force the hand of politicians and government officials.

While critics of extra-legal migration typically resist attempts to liken efforts to enhance immigrant rights with the efforts of African Americans to end Jim Crow, matters of citizenship were also at the center of the Civil Rights movement. It was precisely because white society treated African Americans as, at best, second-class citizens which necessitated the struggle against institutionalized racism. And just as today, supporters of the then-status quo pointed to the law as a way of perpetuating its ugly reality and criticizing those who would defy it.

Citizenship is ultimately about membership. Whether we like it or not, immigrants—“illegal” and “legal”—are members of American society and should be fully treated as such. They live and work here, and make myriad contributions, while reaping a disproportionately small share of the benefits given their lack of formal citizenship rights. That such inequality is legally enshrined makes it no more just than laws of previous eras such as those against interracial marriage or the right of women to vote.

At its best moments, the Civil Rights slogan “I am a man” was an affirmation of a common humanity. It was the movement’s claim to, and struggle to realize, such humanity that ultimately did away with a set of laws that very few would defend today.

In the regard, it is striking how radically different the sensibilities were of many so little time ago. It provides hope that, at some not-too-distant point in the future, people will look back at the current system of immigrant apartheid with the same disgust as the present-day perceives slavery and its successor, Jim Crow.

Already, the Tucson sit-in has inspired numerous actions across the country—including at the offices of Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Charles Schumer (D-New York). May it continue to do so, and serve as a catalyst to a much larger struggle for justice and human rights.

JOSEPH NEVINS teaches geography at Vassar College. His most recent book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). He can be reached at