by Deepti Hajela
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (AP)—After almost nine years, Nigerian immigrant Emakoji Ayikoye is now an American. The final step came at a naturalization ceremony, where he and about 100 others recited the citizenship oath.
But last Thursday’s ceremony was weighted with more symbolism than usual for the 32-year-old college math teacher. It was one of several being held nationwide in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Another, on Friday in Atlanta, featured a speech from his daughter, Bernice King.
Honoring the slain civil rights leader via a naturalization ceremony makes perfect sense to Ayikoye. And around the country, immigration reform advocates also are connecting their efforts to the work of King and the Civil Rights Movement, looking for inspiration and a way to gain support in hopes of passing legislation in 2010.
King would have turned 81 Jan. 15. The holiday honoring him was Monday.
It’s not unusual for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to hold naturalization ceremonies around holidays such as July 4 or at places with ties to immigrant history such as Ellis Island. But the week of events honoring King is a first for the agency.
“When we greet new citizens into the United States we speak of the open opportunities that our country presents to everyone around the world who qualifies for the benefits our agency administers,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the USCIS director. “Martin Luther King helped define those hopes and opportunities for everyone.”
Ayikoye said King “fought for the equality of people.” He pointed out that the reform of immigration laws that allowed more people from all over the world to come to America took place as the Civil Rights Movement was going on.
“His work paved the way for me to become a citizen,” Ayikoye said. “Without him, there is absolutely no way I would become a citizen today.”
The efforts of King and others in the Civil Rights Movement created a political atmosphere in the 1960s that helped those who were trying to change the country’s immigration laws, said David Canton, associate professor of history at Connecticut College in New London.
“The whole ’60s were about democracy and reform,” he said.
Immigration laws at the time were extremely restrictive and were biased in favor of people from places such as northern Europe.
Those who wanted that changed “made people realize that it’s not fair, it’s not democratic,” Canton said.
The current basic framework, that all countries get the same number of visas, was put into place through the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965.
Those advocates who are hoping for reform to come again this year, with changes including a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented population, are still looking toward King.
In Oakland, Calif., the Black Alliance for Just Immigration invokes King’s efforts to bring people together as it works to build support among Blacks for immigration reform.
The group tries to make links between what Blacks have faced and what immigrants face, said Gerald Lenoir, director of BAJI.
“Even some of the migration experiences of African-Americans, coming from the South, leaving conditions of economic injustice and terrorism from both legal authorities and groups like the Ku Klux Klan, we see that same kind of movement in people across borders,” he said.
In Houston, Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr. wrote an editorial calling on people to follow King’s guidance on reform, in terms of working toward a system that treats all who enter the United States with respect.
“Dr. King invoked the truth, the truth being that all humans ought to be treated with a certain dignity,” Clemons told The Associated Press. “It would be natural for us to look to him as an example for fighting for a just cause.”