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Civil rights focus in US turns to immigration

Many marking anniversary see parallel themes

Tens of thousands of people marched Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

Jose Luis Magana /Associated Press

Tens of thousands of people marched Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

NEW YORK — When 250,000 marchers converged on Washington in August 1963, the issues were jobs and freedom.

Now, as the crowds come together to mark the 50th anniversary of that seminal event in the civil rights movement, those issues have been joined by others, including one, immigration reform, that wasn’t nearly on the political radar then like it is today.

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‘‘They were fighting for equality, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for,’’ said Mikhel Crichlow, 28, a native of Trinidad and Tobago now living in Brooklyn. Crichlow said he was going to Washington for the commemoration of the March on Washington. Several days of observances are being held, culminating with a ceremony on Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the march.

The push for comprehensive immigration reform was heard from the speakers’ podium on Saturday, when tens of thousands marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and down the National Mall.

‘‘It doesn’t make sense that millions of our people are living in the shadows,’’ said US Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was a speaker at the 1963 event. ‘‘Bring them out into the light and set them on the path to citizenship.’’

Immigrant advocates came from near and far to be part of the commemoration. They included Casa de Maryland, founded by Central American immigrants in the Washington area in 1985. The organization connected the Rev. King’s famous ‘‘I Have A Dream’’ speech to the dreams of immigrants in the United States illegally who are looking for legal status.

‘‘One of the big reasons immigrant groups wanted to participate was to show the connection,’’ said Shola Ajayi, the group’s advocacy director, who said it had mobilized hundreds of people to attend.

The link between civil rights activism and America’s immigration reality brings history full circle, as the demographic change being seen across the United States owes some of its existence to the decades-ago movement.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 radically altered US immigration policy, opening the country’s doors to the world after decades of keeping them shut to entire geographic regions.

That decision planted the seeds for the demographics explosion the United States is living in now, a shift that historians say happened in part because of a hunger for change and equality created by the civil rights movement.

That movement ‘‘broke through the whole aura of political stagnation that was created by the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and allowed us to imagine another’’ world, said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University in New York. ‘‘It was the civil rights movement . . . that broke through the logjam and allowed people to talk about real issues in our domestic lives.’’

Immigration activist Renata Teodoro, who emigrated from Brazil as a child, studied the civil rights movement and incorporated its tactics into her own activism. The Boston resident has long been a proponent of granting legal status to immigrants who, like her, were brought to the United States as children.

The civil rights movement, she said, humanized the issues of the day, and by doing so ‘‘that changed the culture. That’s what changed a lot of hearts and minds.’’

While the United States has its roots in being a welcoming place for immigrants, that hasn’t always been the case. As a wave of new arrivals flooded US shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, restrictions against those who would be allowed into the country took hold as well.

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