Once before in U.S. history, states like Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Michigan had a large population of migrants – people who had broken laws to reach their new homes. The federal government required officials of those states to deport the “illegals,” but the orders met with widespread resistance from radicals.
The year was 1850, and the law was the Fugitive Slave Act. It required officials and all citizens of Northern states to assist in deporting escaped slaves, or anyone a Southerner claimed was an escaped slave, to a brutal and usually short life of horrendous labor on the cotton and sugar cane plantations of Mississippi and Louisiana.
I thought of this history after attending a meeting of activists from around Connecticut to organize resistance and support for the tens of thousands of families (millions nationwide), who have been thrown into fear of being torn apart as fathers or mothers face raids, arrests, and deportations.
No, the situation is not identical to that of 1850. But the parallels are remarkable.
Enslaved Africans and their descendants did not choose servitude on Southern plantations, and risked their lives to escape slavery to the “free states.” Migrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere today did not choose the war, criminal gangs, political repression, poverty, and/or lack of opportunity which forced them to leave the communities they knew and loved to come to the U.S. In each case, they are fleeing a system that is imposed from the outside.
In the pre-Civil War South, it was the Southern plantation owners and the Northern (and British) bankers, merchants, and cotton mill owners that profited and upheld the system. They did it with backing from the armed might of the U.S. government.
Today, it is giant multinational corporations mostly based in the U.S., with their local allies around the world, still backed by the armed might of the U.S. government, that perpetuates the conditions from which people have fled.
In both cases, families are torn apart. Parents are separated from their children, perhaps never to see them again.
But there is also a proud tradition of resistance. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, outraged citizens in Northern states organized to protect their threatened neighbors. Some states and cities passed laws that forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of alleged fugitive slaves. In a few instances, abolitionists broke into jail, freed captives, and helped them escape to Canada.
Today, in cities and towns around the country, people are coming together in the spirit of the abolitionists. Cities and states are passing “sanctuary” laws, to refuse cooperation with deportations. Whole congregations are raising money, and making plans to provide legal assistance, family support, and other aid.
In the 1850s, the federal government was controlled by the slaveholders and their collaborationist allies. They attempted to stamp out dissent, prosecuting and jailing those who defied the law to protect others from enslavement. And today, the Trump administration threatens retribution.
Americans, like people of any nation, can point to their history with both pride and horror. We can recognize the horrible crime of slavery, even when we celebrate the resistance and rebellions of the enslaved and the determination of their allies to stand by them.
Today, we can take pride in our country – not in the phony dollar-based patriotism of Trump and his corporate congress – but in the spontaneous outpouring of congregations, union members, students, and just plain neighbors, in solidarity with those under threat. It is these patriots that are making America great again.