The Practice of Immigration Law as Manumission

I do not want to equate the evil of chattel slavery with the evil of immigration restrictions. They may or may not be equal in one person’s experience or another’s, but I am not out to make a claim one way or another. I want to avoid at all costs what Elizabeth Martinez terms an “oppression Olympics,”1 referring to the weighing of which group is more or less oppressed than another such that the comparison succeeds in turning oppressed people against each other, which is of course a win for the oppressor. All I want to do here is re-frame the moral context of immigration law practice by way of analogy to the practice of manumission law in centuries past.

I. Manumission Law and Immigration Law

During the centuries that chattel slavery persisted in the Americas, there existed also in many jurisdictions the law of “manumission,” or the emancipation of a person from status as a slave through legal means, such as by purchasing or contracting for their freedom from their owner, or having it granted to them by their owner’s will and testament, making them a “free person.”2 Sometimes this involved slave owners asking a tribunal to manumit the human beings they themselves owned,3 but in other contexts it involved enslaved people directly asking the court to allow themselves to be manumitted,4 sometimes with representation by counsel.5 It is this latter scenario of self-manumission through an advocate that we’re referring to here – where an advocate argued on behalf of an enslaved person for their freedom.

The practice of immigration law6 is the lawful application for enhanced liberty or rights for individuals without U.S. Citizenship, before and against a government agency designed to restrict their liberty and their right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt put it.7 The immigration law practitioner petitions a government officer or judge for their recognition of a human being’s right to move, work and survive. This is to say, the non-citizen, through their immigration lawyer, asks the government officer or judge for permission to be treated as a full human being; put even more simply, a non-citizens asks the government, through counsel, to recognize their humanity.

The same law that affords the non-citizen the ability to petition for this recognition and permission is the same law that endows that officer or judge with the unchallenged power to dismember families, crush freedom and sentence deportees to death. Just as the enslaved person asked for their freedom on the authority of their owner’s will or contract – the same owner with the power to end their family, their freedom or their life. But, without comparing the degree of dehumanization or the frequency of torture and murder visited upon human beings within either of these institutions, what other aspects of them appear comparable?

In both instances the law afforded a narrow route of escape (albeit with limited rights to the escapee) from the institution. In both instances a legal advocate, a lawyer, had to work within the laws of the time and make arguments based on those laws and the assumptions that undergird them – seeking relief from the same power that presumed the authority to destroy their client. In both instances, engaging in this kind of advocacy against the institution did not actually challenge the institution’s authority or legitimacy, but rather reinforced them.8 Certainly it failed/fails to challenge but reinforces the artifice of white supremacy. In both cases the advocacy nonetheless enhanced the liberty of individual people on a case-by-case basis

One author describes manumission this way: “Slaves used the law designed essentially to keep them as slaves to win their freedom, and free people of color used the law to maintain and often to fight vigorously to safeguard their liberty.”9 Replace “slaves” with “undocumented people” and the former part of this explanation could easily describe removal defense and bond hearings while the latter could just as easily describe applications for legal permanent residence or naturalization.

II. Moral Tension

Another way in which the practice of manumission is comparable to the practice of immigration law is that neither was/is devoid of moral ambiguity. In each case well-meaning people were working within an institution they may have fundamentally disagreed with or even hated. In doing so they obeyed the rules of that institution and called upon the authority of the slave owner’s ownership to manumit, and thus arguably kowtowed to its authority, thereby legitimizing and reinforcing it. In this sense they were to some degree complicit in the crimes of the institution itself. When we ask the government today to give a person relief from deportation or detention, we imply that we agree that the government has the authority to destroy that person’s life; inasmuch as we appeal to a power, we also consent to it.

But at the same time, there’s a strong moral argument that an attorney’s practice of manumission law to secure a client’s freedom was necessary for a simple reason: it saved lives. It did require a lawyer to play by the rules of slavery, but practically it also saved the lives of individual human beings, shielding them from torture, murder and rape – just as deportation defense often does today.10 Ultimately manumission won an individual person’s liberty (or at least reduced their level of bondage11), albeit without injuring or truly challenging the evil institution from which they were liberated. The same can be said of the practice of immigration law today – like manumission before it, it may be necessary to save lives.

Historian Jessica Millward, in her article discussing how enslaved women used manumission laws to gain their freedom, describes this moral tension:

Manumissions were granted on an individual basis and never jeopardized the balance of power, which positioned the laws of the slaveholding South as an omnipresent force in the lives of African Americans. After all, manumission laws were slaveholders’ laws, and any space left for a slave to gain freedom through them was a loophole, not an open door. However, the ability to negotiate one’s manumission and that of one’s kin became a very important vehicle of resistance for enslaved women.12

As immigration lawyers, especially in the world of public interest law, we take enormous emotional shelter in the perception that we are on the just side of a war between right and wrong, and with good reason – we are. But we do not enough acknowledge the moral tension Millward describes in the context of manumission, where that tension is more obvious: we are doing the right thing, yes, but in a context that is so wrong that any proximity to it at all puts us closer than we want to be to culpability. As such that proximity deserves our scrutiny and critical thoughtfulness.

So this comparison is not to say that a lawyer’s practice of manumission or immigration law was/is evil in and of themselves; rather manumission practice, like immigration practice, could be a necessary vehicle of resistance (to use Millward’s words) when and inasmuch as it becomes a necessary intervention to save lives and protect people from harm. This comparison prompts us to conclude that their practice does not by itself satisfy the moral responsibility of the practitioner. Such a practice is necessary, but insufficient. It was not enough for a lawyer to advocate for the manumission of individuals during a time when the terrorism of slavery thrived – rather the minimum level of moral responsibility required that they call for the abolition of slavery as an institution.

Thus, like legal manumitters before them, it is not enough for immigration lawyers to practice the law – we must be abolitionists. It is morally insufficient to fall somewhere in the middle or to fail to take that position. And it is in that sense too that these two areas of law are analogous – not in the depth of the cruelty of the institution that they were a part of – no oppression Olympics please – but in their failure of each in and of themselves to be morally adequate conduct on the part of the practitioner in each of their respective contexts.

For both the manumitter advocate and the immigration lawyer, it is a failure of their moral imagination to believe that their responsibility ends with their legal work. Our duty does not end with advocacy on behalf of someone’s life or liberty, but with calling for the abolition of the institution that threatens them in the first place. Our job may begin with filing a Notice of Appearance, but it ends only with speaking out in favor of abolishing the border.13


1 Martinez, Elizabeth. 1993. “Beyond Black/White: The Racisms of our Times.” Social Justice 20 (1/2): 22–34.
2See, e.g., Michael P. Mills, Slave Law in Mississippi from 1817-1861: Constitutions, Codes and Cases, 71 Miss. L.J. 153, 184-188 (2001); Andrew Kull, Restitution in Favor of Former Slaves, Symposium: The Jurisprudence of Slavery Reparations, 84 B.U.L. Rev. 1277-78, 1280-81, 1286 (Dec. 2004); Warran T. Burns, Book Review: Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862, 78 Tul. L. Rev. 2339, 2340 (“slaves nevertheless continued to enter into contracts for self-purchase during the antebellum period”).
3 A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. & F. Michael Higginbothom, “Yearning to Breathe Free”: Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia, 68 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1213, 1255 (Dec. 1993); Michael P. Mills, Slave Law in Mississippi from 1817-1861: Constitutions, Codes and Cases, 71 Miss. L.J. 153, 184-188 (2001).
4 See Warran T. Burns, Book Review: Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862, 78 Tul. L. Rev. 2339, 2340 (“slaves in Louisiana had the right to bring suits for their freedom in their individual capacities . . .”); A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. & F. Michael Higginbothom, “Yearning to Breathe Free”: Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia, 68 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1213, 1260-61 (Dec. 1993).
5 See Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad 42, 133 (2015).
6 I don’t use this phrase here to refer to attorneys who work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Citizenship and Immigration Service – although they are practicing immigration law as well, inasmuch as a lawyer representing a slave state in opposition to an enslaved persons request for manumission could be said to have been practicing manumission law.
7 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, new edition 296 (1968).
8 This is probably not the case with federal impact litigators who might challenge an immigration law on constitutional grounds, for example, since they may be challenging the institution itself, just as, say, the 13th Amendment did to slavery, or Brown v. Board of Education did to slavery’s later incarnation, Jim Crow.
9 Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans at xiii (Jan. 2003).
10 In truth, the lawyer defending the person from deportation does not “save” that person – but merely engages in a partnership in which the non-citizen saves themselves through that partnership, and the same can be said for any attorney who defended an enslaved person against a nineteenth century tribunal.
11 Manumission did not restore a former slave to full human being-status – they could still face violence and discrimination and in some jurisdiction could be re-enslaved to pay off their owners debts. Likewise, a non-citizen may win Legal Permanent Residence before an immigration court, but could still be deported if they commit a crime or engage in any number of other actions.
12 Jessica Millward, The Relics of Slavery: Interracial Sex and Manumission in the American South, Frontiers: A J. of Women Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (2010), pp. 22-30, at 26.
13 And when I say abolishing the border I mean abolishing the border.

Resistance to U.S. Immigration Restriction: Echoes of the Opposition to the Fugitive Slave Laws

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States enacted laws to facilitate the recapture of escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required citizens to help recapture slaves and delegated power to federal commissioners to decide whether those arrested would be freed or sent back to slavery. Both this law and its predecessor, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, imposed fines on those who interfered with the recapture process.

There was resistance to the laws in the free states. As notes, “… most Northern states intentionally neglected to enforce” the 1793 law, with some establishing laws making it more difficult for slaveowners to recapture their slaves. There was also resistance to the 1850 law: “States like Vermont and Wisconsin passed new measures intended to bypass and even nullify the law…” At the same time, individuals assisted runaway slaves, including helping slaves migrate to Canada. Groups of activists in the North even physically liberated escaped slaves from federal control.

The current tension between a U.S. government intent on apprehending and deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants and states, localities, and individuals working to shield these individuals from immigration enforcement is reminiscent of this history.

One parallel is the wide resistance from non-federal governments to both the fugitive slave laws and immigration enforcement. An article in The New York Times reports that five states “limit how much the local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents” and that over six hundred counties across the U.S. “limit how much the local police cooperate with requests from federal authorities to hold immigrants in detention.” Similarly, many big cities “have reaffirmed plans to defy the administration and act as a kind of bulwark against mass deportations.” In an unpublished paper, Allan Colbern cites a scholar who notes that the city of Chicago refused to enforce fugitive slave law in the 1850s and that today it similarly balks at enforcing immigration law. (At the same time, some localities currently resisting immigration enforcement are located in former slave states.)

Another parallel is the financial threat for interfering with federal law. As with the ability to fine those protecting fugitive slaves, the federal government apparently can withhold federal money from localities that restrict local law enforcement from passing along information to immigration authorities about the immigration status of prisoners. The Trump administration has threatened to punish localities in this way for not cooperating with immigration authorities.

A third parallel is the involvement of individuals in protecting those being pursued, whether slaves or immigrants. The New York Times reports that “members of churches and synagogues are again offering their houses of worship as sanctuaries for undocumented people fearing deportation…” Hundreds of houses of worship are either providing refuge for undocumented immigrants in their buildings or are providing resources such as legal aid. Families in various states also are making their homes available as safe havens for undocumented immigrants. Moreover, a “modern-day underground railroad” may be created to help undocumented individuals move “house-to-house or into Canada.” (Similarly, a farmer in southern France has helped smuggle migrants through France without compensation and has criticized the government for blocking the entrance of African migrants from Italy. (See here and here.))

Furthermore, resisting immoral institutions is a likely motivation behind the efforts to assist both runaway slaves and undocumented immigrants, whether the institution is slavery or immigration restrictions (or at least deportation). People generally won’t help murder suspects or convicts on the run, but they might help individuals who are oppressed for reasons beyond their control, such as the color of their skin or their place of birth. (In the case of local governments limiting their cooperation with immigration authorities, the motivation often may be concerns that collaboration with those authorities would interfere with law enforcement because residents fearful of immigration enforcement might be unwilling to report crimes to the local police.)

The Fugitive Slave Laws were eventually repealed during the Civil War, and slavery itself was abolished shortly after the war. Hopefully, immigration restrictions will disappear as well in the not too distant future.