Immigration Reform - Obama's Great Civil Rights Challenge

Nels Johnson

To paraphrase President Johnson’s sage words, if a President can’t use the remaining two years of his Presidency to push with all of his might for civil rights, then what the hell’s the presidency for then, anyway?

Last week President Obama spoke in Dallas, Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His remarks centered on President Lyndon Johnson’s extraordinary achievements for civil rights and how President Johnson accomplished as much as he did in five short years.

President Johnson’s fight for civil rights legislation is extraordinary. He was thrust from the position of a backwards, afterthought of a Vice President into the leader of the free world overnight. Against the advice of his senior advisors, President Johnson decided to double down and use his huge account of political capital to force the passage of President Kennedy’s languishing Civil Rights Act. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson rued, “we’ve lost the South for a whole generation.” He was only partially right; Democrats have probably lost the South for a lot longer than that. President Johnson went on to pass more pieces of major legislation around civil rights and voting rights. He also used Executive Orders to expand civil rights as well.

Despite the many truly transformational accomplishments and civil rights advancements brought on by The Great Society, President Johnson left office a disgraced and broken man. His approval rate during his final months in office was 40%, one of the lowest of the modern era. It’s taken a generation or two for historians to truly appreciate how he transformed civil rights and gave opportunity to millions upon millions of Americans.

America has made great strides, but the fight for civil rights is far from over. Immigration reform is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time. Thousands of families are torn apart every year through America’s draconian and unjust deportation policies. At least 13 million people in American are forced to live in the shadows for fear of deportation. America’s immigration laws are a complicated, ineffective mess. Most agree that we need a comprehensive overhaul of our broken immigration system, one with a true pathway to citizenship. President Obama laments that he can’t accomplish comprehensive immigration reform on his own; he needs a willing partner in Congress.

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