The late Congressman John Lewis was not only a giant of the civil rights arena.
His advocacy also touched us directly in New Haven during the ongoing movement for immigrant rights.
Lewis’s passing was marked by a multitude of reflections over his global and national legacy.
In the news and across social media, some of the most iconic photos depicting his many acts of heroism were shared: black and white images of his 1961 arrest as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi; his speech at the 1963 March on Washington; his leadership of the 1965 march and beating by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
While the media has largely focused on his leadership in the civil rights movement when he was a young man, Congressman Lewis continued to lead our nation’s battles for justice throughout his life. In the ongoing movement for immigrant rights, he was a fierce advocate and ally in Congress — and he offered his direct support for the movement in New Haven
On June 5, 2007, New Haven’s Board of Alders voted to make our city the first in the nation to issue municipal identification cards to all residents irrespective of immigration status. Two days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a series of raids in Fair Haven, breaking into homes and detaining nearly 30 New Haveners.
These early morning raids, coupled with threats to return, bred fear in New Haven’s immigrant communities. The city fought back, with the mayor publicly denouncing the Department of Homeland Security (of which ICE is a part), and city officials working with advocates to support those detained and the larger immigrant community. Residents from all walks of life participated in marches and rallies and stepped up to lend direct support to the immigrant community.
One such march and rally was held on June 17, which was attended by 1,000 people. Congressman Lewis was invited to attend but was unable to be there. Instead, he issued a powerful statement of support, which was read at the rally. His words spoke not only to the past and to New Haven directly, but also eerily foreshadowed our present-day America:
We knew them well by that knock on the door in the middle of the night. Men who hid their faces beneath white hoods. They came with threats and force. They broke families apart. Men and women were led away, some never to return. Children cried. They would never forget. I will never forget.
Today in New Haven, and elsewhere in this great country, that knock has returned.
Now it comes at any time of day or night. It comes from men who hide their identities behind anonymous uniforms. They trample on our Constitution. They trample on the hearth and home of hard working men and women. They take fathers and mothers away from children. They spirit them away to hidden places. Some will not return.
Under the cover of law, the law is broken. Under the claim of homeland security, the security of homes is violated. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, peaceful families are terrorized.
Today these men without names have eyes only for people of a certain color. Tomorrow, in their eyes, we will all be the same color.
We must not abide this in America. I will not abide this in America.
New Haven, you are a shining light of which every American should be proud. A light shining brighter today than even the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
I urge you to resist, as we resisted those who beat down our doors, who raided our communities, who sundered our lives and the lives of our children.
Let there be no strangers among you. Let everyone of you—young and old, men and women, firefighters and police officers, citizen and non-citizen alike—carry the identity card of the New Haven family.
Give sanctuary to the oppressed. Place your bodies as bulwarks between injustice and the innocent. Avert not your eyes but be steadfast and witness. Speak truth to those who abuse their power. Draw a line. They shall not pass.
You, we, our America—will prevail.
Immigration Reform Efforts, 2013-2014
At the beginning of President Obama’s second term, immigrant rights advocates launched a campaign for federal legislation to provide the undocumented with a pathway to citizenship. To pressure Senators to introduce legislation, a national rally was held in Washington DC on April 10, 2013.
Hundreds of New Haveners filled buses leaving from Long Wharf for the trip to DC to join tens of thousands on the National Mall. Though we had invited Congressman Lewis to speak, his staff was uncertain about his availability. Halfway through the rally, an energized Congressman Lewis showed up and delivered a powerful speech that had the crowd roaring.
Six days after the rally, the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” introduced immigration reform legislation. On June 27, 2013 the Senate passed the immigration bill by a margin of 68-32.
Unfortunately, Speaker John Boehner sat on the bill. To exert pressure in the House to move on the bill, advocates planned more events, including a series of rallies and protests, which many New Haveners joined with gusto.
On Oct. 8, 2013, thousands rallied again in Washington DC., including New Haven residents, scores of whom traveled to DC by bus for the day.
Over 200 people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience, sitting down in the middle of the street outside Congress. Among those arrested was 73-year-old Congressman Lewis and seven other members of Congress. It was his 45th arrest.
Despite ongoing advocacy late into the year and 2014, the bill was never voted on.
The Border Crisis, 2018
During the height of the family separation crisis, between October 2017 and May 2018, an estimated 2,700 migrant children were separated from their families. Congressman Lewis was outspoken, fighting for change inside and outside the halls of Congress. He pushed for legislation to end family separation and joined a number of public events calling out the Trump administration for their lack of humanity.
On June 14, he and several Members of Congress took part in an arrestable action to protest family separation policies. That month he delivered several powerful speeches on the House floor, including this one:
There’s hundreds and thousands of children. Little babies have been taken from their mothers. From their fathers. They’ve been held in cages. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just. My position is very simple. History will not be kind to us as a nation and as a people if we continue to go down this road. In the final analysis we are one people, we are one family…Maybe our foremothers and forefathers all came to this great land in different ships but we’re all in the same boat now…What is happening in our country today will set us back for many, many years to come. We must end it and end it now. Free and liberate these children! It’s the right thing to do.
June 20, 2018 was the last time I participated in advocacy efforts with Congressman Lewis, again focused on the family separation crisis. We organized with families and community organizations around the country to bring dozens of immigrant children to D.C. to participate in a rally followed by an action on the House floor.
When the children arrived on Capitol Hill, they were warmly greeted by several members of Congress, including Congressman Lewis. When the legislative session began, Congressional champions of immigration spoke passionately on the floor of the House against the atrocities at the border. When it was Congressman Luis Gutierrez’ turn to speak, he delivered a rousing speech and then called for the children and his Congressional colleagues to join him at the House podium. (This broke House rules.)
Republican legislators reacted loudly and vigorously, working frantically to shut it down. Of course, Congressman Lewis was right in the middle of it all, “making good trouble” as he used to say. That day, legislators and youth delivered a powerful message to Congress that lifted up the dignity and worth of immigrant children.
Sept. 27, 2018
Congressman John Lewis, and Unidad Latina en Accion’s John Lugo were honored at the Center for Community Change’s Annual “Change Champions” gala in September 2018.
When John Lugo accepted his award, he spoke about the 2007 New Haven raids, thanking Congressman Lewis for his support of the city’s immigration efforts during a time of crisis.
John Lugo brought with him a copy of the statement that John Lewis had written in support of New Haven in 2007.
He asked Congressman Lewis to sign in, and he obliged.
“We spoke about immigration and he thanked me for my work,” Lugo recalled. “I told him how grateful we were for the way he stepped up to support us in New Haven. I was very emotional, because speaking about the raids brought back a lot of memories of the terrible ways they impacted our community. I asked if he would be willing to come to New Haven to participate in a rally in support of immigration and he immediately agreed.”
When I think of the myriad ways that John Lewis influenced our small city, I recognize that there are thousands of stories like these, covering thousands of places across our nation.
While we will not have Congressman Lewis in person any longer, we will have his legacy and his words, including those calling on us to: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
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