By Glenn Young
The recent mass-demonstrations of immigrants and their supporters across the nation have been compared to the demonstrations and demands of the Civil Right Movement of the 1950s and 60s. However, the legislation that has sparked these public outpourings appears to come from a far darker period of America's past. The Sensenbrenner Bill (HR4437), the immigration bill that has passed the House, includes language that harkens back to, if not overtly takes from, one of the most notorious and, in retrospect, one of the most hated and shameful laws passed in the United States history: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The fugitive slave law was enacted as part of the general agreement around slavery called the "1850 Compromise." The slaveholders of the Southern, and what came to be called "border states", demanded action from Congress as increasing numbers of runaway slaves were finding support and shelter in "Free States." What eventually came out of Congress as the new law of the land included language that made runaway slaves completely without rights in the "Free States."
At the time of the passing of the law, slavery was legal and runaways were the "illegal aliens" of their time. Fleeing slavery, many "runaways" had forged manumission papers, and tried to find places within the "legal" free Black community to live as free Americans (similar to `fake' green cards or `fake' social security documents today). Many others lived lives of hiding and working at whatever jobs they could find without raising suspicion.
Some of the features of the 1850 Law included:
o That any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000 (based on 1850 dollars).
o People suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without warrant and turned over to a claimant on nothing more than his sworn testimony of ownership.
o A suspected black slave could not ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her behalf.
o Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
In other words, the features of the Law included:
o All runaways were illegal and could never be considered free from their "obligations"
o All police had to participate in the returning of these "illegal aliens" to their "owners"
o Runaway slaves had no rights in local courts
o Any person who helped a runaway was guilty of a crime punishable by fine and imprisonment.
Based on the language used to describe current immigration legislation on Immigration Reform Now (a site from the Republican National Committee) the similarities between the Sensenbrenner Bill and the Fugitive Slave Act are chilling. These haunting similarities include:
o " `Unlawful presence' would now be considered a crime and a felony, meaning that undocumented immigrants may have to serve jail time and would be barred from future legal status and from re-entry into the country."
(Or corresponding to the "no slave were considered legal in the Free States")
o "State and local law enforcement are authorized to enforce federal immigration laws. State and local governments that refuse to participate would be subject to the loss of federal funding."
(Or corresponding to the forcing local federal marshals to arrest runaway or suspected runaway slaves)
o "The use of expedited removal, which would permit DHS (Department of Homeland Security) enforcement personnel to remove a potential asylum-seeker without providing an opportunity to appear before an immigration judge or qualified adjudicator..."
(Or corresponding to the no civil trial rights for slaves)
o "Anyone or any organization who "assists" an individual without documentation "to reside in or remain" in the United States knowingly or with "reckless disregard" as to the individual's legal status would be liable for criminal penalties and five years in prison. This could include church personnel who provide shelter..."
(Or corresponding to the fines and imprisonment for aiding runaway slaves in any fashion)
Recently, many involved in supporting immigrants have expressed concerned that the new immigration bills will make little distinction between "legal and illegal aliens" in the efforts to enforce the law. The history of the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act would support this fear. The Fugitive Slave Act made it possible that any African-American in any location in the US could be swept up in some effort to "find illegals" and be carried off to slavery. The Act caused many "legal" free Blacks to flee America in terror because they lacked any legal means to protect their freedom. SOURCE
While there was some sympathy for runaways prior to the passage of the 1850 law, the very language of the law and the subsequent raids and lack of access to courts for the "captives" caused many whites in the North to participate in civil disobedience and other illegal actions. SOURCE
While there are obvious difference between runaway slaves and the current influx of illegal alien workers, these differences may only be of perception and time. It is critical to understand that from 1775 to 1865, (the first ninety years of our nation), slavery was legal and presumed by the vast majority of non-slaver holders to be legitimate. Overt racism was considered proper, legal and "scientifically supported" for century afterwards.
We are not clairvoyant. We do not know how we will see the decedents of the current influx of illegal immigrants 150 hundred years from now. However, we do know that when we used legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act to address similar "immigration" issues 150 years ago, it failed and led to a greater social crisis then existed prior to the new laws. Perhaps we can learn from our past errors this time and start to look for a new and fresh approach that does not involve stripping people of their humanity and their basic rights. The Sensenbrenner Bill is not a fresh start or a new approach to issues of "runaways." The Sensenbrenner bill is, in the worst possible way, a re-writing of history.
Language from the two acts:
The Sensenbrenner Bill (HR4437)
Fugitive Slave Act