A new movement is gaining in the United States that promises to be the ''civil rights movement'' of the 1980s. It bears many similarities to its predecessor of the 1960s. Poor people are fighting the power structure, there are demonstrations and riots, and courts are extending rights to those who had no rights before.
But there is one important difference. The civil rights movement of the '60s extended the rights of Americans to those who already were Americans - blacks and other minorities. The new movement seeks to extend them to people who are not citizens or even legal resident aliens, but to illegal aliens whose very presence in the US is against the law.
This movement has had three landmarks already.
In 1981, the cases of Plyler v. Doe and In Re Alien Children reached the Supreme Court. Lower courts decided that illegal immigrants have a constitutional right to free public education in the US, just as do citizens and legal immigrants. If these decisions are upheld by the Supreme Court, these cases will probably be used as a wedge to drive open more public programs and benefits - food stamps, public housing, health care, and direct aid - to illegal immigrants.
In 1980, in the case of FAIR v. Klutznick, the federal government argued for the position of the Census Bureau that illegal immigrants should be counted in the 1980 census for the purpose of representation in Congress. The courts concurred. Illegal immigrants were therefore counted, and the new redistricting of Congress will reflect the political representation of illegal immigrants.
To some, this may seem a minor matter, since this representation does not include voting rights for illegal immigrants. But the Justice Department argued in FAIR v. Klutznick that states can grant illegal immigrants the right to vote in presidential and congressional elections - and so this issue will likely be in the courts again.
Also in 1981, illegal immigrants for the first time rioted while being held by the government pending disposition of their cases. Haitains in Florida stormed a camp for illegal entrants and released a hundred people being detained. In the camp, Krome North, Haitians staged a hunger strike and refused to eat unless they were released. Parenthetically, the hunger strike ended when camp officials made clear to the Haitians that, contrary to what the organizers of the strike had told them, they would not be arrested and jailed for a year if they ate.
So we see developing in this new civil rights movement: (1) the demand that anyone who reaches the US, legally or illegally, must be allowed to remain; (2) the demand that anyone who reaches the US illegally must be given the same public services and benefits as a US citizen; and (3) the demand that anyone who reaches the US deserves the right to vote. We shall have to decide in the upcoming decade whether these demands are legitimate, whether they are rightful successors to the demands of minority Americans in the 1960s.
I believe they are, legally and morally, nonsense. This movement is not legitimate. Nations have duties toward their citizens, and the right to carry out those duties. Every nation has the right to limit immigration, to determine who shall and shall not be allowed to enter, to remain within its borders, and to be a member of its polity. The US is not an exception to this rule. It has the right to deny entry to those who insist upon it. Citizens of other countries do not have the ''right'' to migrate here; they come here by permission.
The US cannot - by the fiat of any court - extend its constitutional protections to the four and a half billion people of the world. It cannot extend them even to that significant portion of 4.5 billion people who would be able to reach its shores illegally. Nor can it abrogate its duty to protect its citizens by declaring the country open to anyone who can come here by any means.
Those who are in the US in violation of its laws will certainly have their basic human rights protected. Illegal immigrant status should never be the excuse for allowing abuse or exploitation of anyone. But illegal immigrants do not have the same rights to America's benefits as its citizens. And they certainly do not have the right to vote in US elections. To say that they do is not constitutional exegisis; it is constitutional mockery.
In Washington, D.C., the Institute for Policy Studies is giving a course on organizing ''third world communities'' in the US around immigration issues. Similar courses and organizing are going on throughout the country. There are those who believe that the ''right to immigrate'' to the US is the basis for a civil rights movement of the '80's - that all people in the world have a right to become Americans.
I believe they are wrong