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 history.com 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 In an unpublished paper, Allan Colbern cites a scholar who notes that the city of Chicago refused to enforce fugitive slave law in the 1850s and that today it similarly balks at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.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

One thought on “Resistance to U.S. Immigration Restriction: Echoes of the Opposition to the Fugitive Slave Laws”

  1. An apt and overdue comparison. Note also that just as the fugitive slave laws criminalized assistance to and harboring of “fugitive slaves,” so does contemporary federal law criminalize assistance to and harboring of “fugitive aliens,” see 8 USC 1324. Interestingly, the law today punishes these acts of compassion with five years in prison, while the fugitive slave laws punished it with only 6 months prison time. See Wilbur Siebert’s “The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom,” (1898) at p. 266.

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