To the Freedom Fighters of the Civil Rights Movement and President Lyndon Johnson:
Thank you. Your courageous actions made my life possible. I reap the benefits of your valiant labor, 55 years later.
You played a role in ending the race-based immigration quota system, enshrined by Congress’s passage of the Immigration Act of 1917 — effectively banning Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean people from entering the United States — and the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act. The law’s quota system prioritized immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, restricting immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Africa, and completely banning Arabs, Asians and Indians. But due to your efforts, our country evolved.
When African Americans and other people of color were robbed of their voting and labor rights, you rose. You marched across bridges and demonstrated with sit-ins. You insisted on an integrated and diverse America, a debt which can never be repaid. Just a few months after passing the Voting Rights Act, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing the race-based immigration quota system and replacing it with a system that opened the door for refugees, reunified families and attracted professionals. Immigrant visas could no longer be denied on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or residence.
Sitting beneath the Statue of Liberty, President Johnson signed into law what gave my immigrant parents an opportunity to contribute to the growth, strength and spirit of this country. I respectfully beg to differ with what was said in that speech: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill.” It indeed was revolutionary. My parents, who were born and raised in India, came to Michigan in the 1970s, looking for a better life for their future children. I would not be an American doctor fighting on the frontlines of COVID-19, serving the homeless, teaching dance to cancer survivors and doing what I can do for American communities had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement. You were wise to foreshadow that signing this bill, “will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.”
So I thank the Freedom Fighters from the bottom of my heart for protesting, organizing and speaking out. It did matter. It made a difference. America has progressed, and I believe it will continue to do so. We just have to follow your lead. May we repair the conscience of this country so that 55 years from now, our children can thank us, too.
Asha Shajahan, MD (the daughter of Indian immigrants)