Immigration and the New Fugitive Slave LawsRoundup
tags: slavery, immigration, Race, abolitionists
Manisha Sinha, a professor and the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000) and The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016).
Last month, as many noted, the washed-up bodies of a Salvadoran father, Óscar Ramírez, and his young daughter, Valeria, who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande recalled the inert, lifeless body of the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi, on a Turkish beach four years ago. The Kurdi photograph aroused worldwide condemnation and a spotlight on the plight of refugees from war-torn Syria. Many hoped that the tragedy of the Ramírez case would similarly arouse public outrage at the inhumanity of this administration’s draconian immigration policies—its overcrowded detention camps, the separation of families, the deaths and abuse of children, some merely infants. In the Ramírezes’ desperate bid for safety and a new life was also an echo of an earlier crossing attempt, which, though fictional, captured the imagination of a nation. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), an enslaved mother and her infant succeeded in fleeing across the frozen Ohio river to freedom.
Some historical analogies can mislead, granted, but we should be mindful of the lessons from history that can shine light on our current humanitarian crisis. The first is that evils we had thought long banished from civilized societies can reappear, and with alarming speed. From concentration camps for Uighurs in China, the largest mass-detention since the Holocaust, to migrant detention centers in America, we’re seeing an increase in the systemic internment of human beings worldwide. In the US, perhaps the most fraught example is Fort Sill, Oklahoma, an Army post proposed as a migrant detention center. Fort Sill symbolizes a bloodline of state-sponsored cruelty throughout American history, first as a reservation for dispossessed Native Americans, then as an internment camp for Japanese-American citizens during World War II, and now in its present planned use by ICE as a holding pen for migrants.
The second lesson from history is how quickly such measures can be accepted as necessary, even “natural.” That ordinary people of any ethnicity or nationality can partake in and support evil actions at any time is not news to historians. The blithe assurance of top advisers like Stephen Miller and senior bureaucrats like Kirstjen Nielsen who devise cruel policies to suit the needs of the system they’re working within, and implement them seemingly without thought, recalls Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” More shocking is that many border patrol agents appear not only to be following orders but, according to a recent ProPublica report, have paraded their own racist, misogynistic, and sadistic tendencies in Facebook posts. That the Trump administration has announced new nationwide raids by ICE agents recalls the kidnappings and roundups by nineteenth-century slave-catchers and federal marshals.
The out-group mentality is always a danger, but there are still individuals who, regardless of race and ethnicity, do not accept or support their government’s unjust and inhumane policies. If the history of slavery and the fight against it has taught us something, it is that racial proscriptions and divisions suit those who seek to dehumanize and exploit people they construe as the other. For this reason, the interracial nineteenth-century abolition movement can provide valuable inspiration to those involved in today’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees and to resist the threatened descent into authoritarianism, mass atrocity, and inhumanity.
The 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Act required Northern free states to return runaway slaves to Southern slaveholders, enforcing the fugitive slave clause of the US Constitution. By the turn of the nineteenth century, free blacks and mostly Quaker abolitionists resisted the implementation of the fugitive slave law by forming humane societies to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks, as well as fugitive slave rendition. Northern states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York passed personal liberty laws guaranteeing the due process of law and trial by jury for suspected fugitives.
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