LTE: Illegal Immigration and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Politicians and ideologues insist that illegal immigrants should be deported because they broke the law. But some laws ought to be broken.

In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of a compromise between Southern slave-owners and Northern abolitionists. The law made it a duty for every law enforcement official to arrest runaway slaves. A suspected slave had no right to a jury trial or any kind of legal defense. In addition, the act of aiding a runaway slave became a criminal offense subject to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

I bring up this historical episode because of a similar injustice is occurring today. Escaped slaves who risk life and limb to come to the free states of America are captured and returned to face severe punishment (and sometimes immediate execution) from their masters.

I am referring primarily to the Cuban, but also the Chinese, Haitian, and many other immigrants who are denied entry or forced to return to dictatorships. Some are political activists seeking freedom of expression, but most simply do not wish to live as property of the state, and will do anything to live as free men and women.

These would-be immigrants have shown by their actions than they are far better Americans than most people born in the U.S. While most Americans don’t even bother to vote, they abandon their entire life and culture and often risk everything to embrace the American dream. Upon coming to America, they are usually far more successful than their native born-counterparts. By any rational standard of justice, these immigrants deserve to be here far more than the millions of welfare slobs, America-hating hippies and intellectuals, and all the union workers and assorted privileged moochers who believe that their livelihood comes from a divine birthright rather than the unbridled genius and hard work of self-made men.

And yet, I see news stories in the “qurkies” section of the paper about Cubans trying to float to America in a car, or squeeze in the seat cushions of a car, as if there is something humorous about people so desperate to live in freedom that they float in open ocean in a car–twice. Or people who cross a desert with barely enough food and water to escape the crushing poverty of Mexico or Guatemala. Or people who sell their life savings and suffocate in a shipping crate for months for a chance to wash dishes in California and send a few dollars back home. I would like to ask all the native-born American citizens whether they would be courageous enough to take those kinds of risks to provide for their family.

Whether they come here to escape political oppression or simply the pervasive poverty and idleness of welfare socialist states, the immigrants who come here seeking a free, productive life are Americans-in-spirit, regardless of what some bureaucrat or politician says. Any law that claims otherwise is an abomination, a gross injustice, and should be treated in the same way that moral men regarded the Fugitive Slave Act or the Nazi Nuremberg Laws.

I do not believe the facts I mention – the plight of oppressed peoples, the risks they take, and the productive lives they lead here are in dispute. I cannot understand what sort of irrationality, what bigotry, what idiocy would make Americans deny the very legacy their nation is founded on. As an immigrant, I sympathize with Frederick Douglass, who, like me, was a persecuted minority who escaped a slave state to embrace American values and pursue the American Dream. Unlike him, I came here legally – but I’ll be damned if any “law” was going to keep my out. I conclude with his words:

O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.


Filed under General

7 Responses to LTE: Illegal Immigration and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

  1. Ryan

    “Slaves…are captured and returned to face severe punishment.” you said, referring “…primarily to Cubans”. Aren’t you aware of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, whereby Cubans have who reach dry land are not deported? They have special status. So I do not get where you are coming from with such an assertion.

  2. Ryan

    “Upon coming to America, they are usually far more successful than their native born-counterparts.” Is that the case? A lot of the times this does happen, but moreoften it does not. I live in Miami-Dade County, and this place is much more “ghetto” than the average city in the US. I’m sure that people in LA suburbs would agree also. In terms of current graduation rates in areas with a heavy immigrant population, or the rates at which students go on to University, I don’t see where your assertion comes from.

  3. “Aren’t you aware of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, whereby Cubans have who reach dry land are not deported?”
    Presumably, slaves who got as far as the free territories weren’t deported either. But such arbitrary distinctions don’t justify the Fugitive Slave Act.

  4. “Upon coming to America, they are usually far more successful than their native born-counterparts.” Is that the case?

    Yes. I think the closest basis of comparison is the inner-city black communities or Amerindian reservations, which have a similar socio-economic status. I don’t know what you consider “ghetto” but I am not comparing former subsidence-level peasants to middle-class Americans.

  5. Ryan


    Regarding the first issue: It was my understanding that you asserted that Cubans are captured and returned to face severe punishment while living in the US, which is not the case, but I think its apparent now that you didn’t mean captured and deported in that way, but before they ever touched land.

    And regarding the second issue, I see what you were saying now. I thought you meant immigrants end up better off than native-born Americans as a whole.

  6. Bravo! Great article, forcefully written. I have personally experienced the immorality of America’s immigration laws. I lived the past 7yrs of my life in America (beginning since I turned 18), studied there, worked there, created a life there that I enjoyed living – it was, in so many ways, the achievement of my rational values, i.e. a life lived happily. I fell in love with a wonderful man, stayed together with him for close to 5yrs as a couple, until I was forced to get up and leave the US because my visa could not be renewed.
    I find it immensely immoral that the most intimate connection of love that I had with another human being was severed by an arbitrary government fiat. My values were snatched away from me by force. It’s a terrible thing to have to go through.

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