“I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against ‘outsiders coming in.’ ” 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail

As powerful as King’s missive was when he first wrote it in 1963, that letter has deep meaning for today’s social justice struggles. In documenting the personal stories of Memphis’ undocumented immigrants— DREAMers—for MLK50, I clearly see the parallels — and have been transformed.

The DREAMers I have met make Memphis, the place I proudly call home, a better place. When I went to the West Coast for college a few short years ago, I was always defending “the dirty South” to folks who thought white Southerners were racist, homophobic, unhealthy and politically incorrect. I spent four-plus years letting my friends know “y’all” was just a part of my vocabulary, not an ethos designed to “other” my neighbors.

Like many white Americans, especially proud Southern ones, I can easily trace my family roots pretty far, unlike my black neighbors and friends. On my mother’s side, we trace our Memphis roots to the early 1900s. My father, born here, had family who came from other Southern states and before that, England, in the 1500s. Both my parents graduated from then-Memphis State University and went on to successful professional careers. My mother was an English teacher and a medical professional, my father a journalist. My dad, Gerald (Jerry) Hearn, was actually my through-line to King, as he had the honor of interviewing him in 1968 on WDIA, just before King was killed. My older brother and I were taught to embrace others and their differences, and hope they would give us the grace to embrace ours.

My parents, most importantly, taught us to think for ourselves and develop our opinions based on our own experiences, not others, and to mind our business and do the work, our work. Despite the violence and threats of the time, my father didn’t turn down the assignment to interview the Rev. King. He learned from it; it shaped him. His experiences also shaped me.

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. … Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Letter From a Birmingham Jail

The whole reason President Barack Obama signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) granting protected status to undocumented children brought here by their parents is failure of a stubborn Congress to pass the Dream Act, a permanent solution acknowledging these folks are our folks. And some say because the parents of these Dreamers broke the law, they should all be deported. This, despite the fact these families have jobs, support families and contribute positively to America’s economic and cultural bottom lines.

For years, virtually no one had a second thought about Dreamers, myself included, except Dreamers themselves. In a polarized political environment undergirded by greed and hate, everyone has an opinion. And even though some people reject offering these immigrants a pathway to citizenship, it’s worth noting that 76 percent of Americans support a clean Dream Act. Also, despite the rhetoric otherwise, illegal immigrants and DACA recipients aren’t taking all “our” jobs, since earlier this year there were around 15,000–16,000 good-paying jobs open in this city, and at least a couple thousand of those jobs required no prior training.

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” — Letter From a Birmingham Jail

So how do we square “breaking” the law with the pursuit of justice? King wrote people have a responsibility to protest unjust laws. Referencing St. Thomas Aquinas, King wrote: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

It degrades the personalities of Dreamer parents to fear deportation after years of them and their children contributing to the U.S. economy. We have not just accepted, but welcomed, their labor and culture. We like eating their food, listening to their music and going to their festivals. These cultural symbols aren’t just “theirs” anymore. They are part of Memphis culture, too.

King also wrote in the letter, “I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ ”

I would posit where we are today falls into that “no law” category: Congress hasn’t passed a law to protect Dreamers, nor have they passed a law to deport them, and time is running out. It’s our moral responsibility to support just and fair laws, and a fair law would provide these undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents a pathway to citizenship uncluttered with punitive measures and hardships. A just law also would acknowledge productive citizens, who are benefit American society, not a soft, squishy concept but one objectively measured. A just law would recognize DACA recipients must adhere to certain standards, and so those who are here have fulfilled program requirements.

They should, by all means, have an opportunity to stay here and thrive.

To be clear, who gets to immigrate to the United States has always been a part of a racial and ethnic (and now religious) rubric. In documenting the plight of 18 million children growing up in immigrant families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reminds us U.S.-Mexico conflicts resulted in annexing part of Mexico, “setting into motion discrimination, violence, forced deportations and segregation against those residing there” affecting generations of people of Mexican heritage. This has been accomplished in the context of dehumanizing enslavement of Africans brought to the U.S. and their continued disenfranchisement, all the while failing to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people before and after the founding of this country.

Not surprisingly, King said it best …

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

What you can do now …

The Memphis Youth Association says DACA recipients affected by President Donald Trump’s rescinding of the Obama-era policy face losing their businesses, jobs, drivers’ licenses and work permits. They’re urging Congress to pass a #CleanDREAMAct before they break for recess and will march at 6 p.m., Dec. 21 outside the federal court at 167 Main St. to make it plain.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.