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Trump’s Immigration Policy: a New “Fugitive Slave Act?”

Like escaped slaves from the pre-Civil War South, immigrants in America today are experiencing the imminent threat of unjust law and cruel enforcement.

The just-released Homeland Security implementation memos tell how the Trump administration will dramatically expand the apprehension, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Planned actions include the expeditious hiring of 10,000 new ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) agents and officers; establishment of more detention centers; expanded use of “expedited removals;” and greater reliance on local law enforcement “to investigate, identify, apprehend, arrest, detain, transport and conduct searches.”

Bowing to anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiments, President Donald Trump and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have launched what promises to be a massive countrywide manhunt for undocumented immigrants.  Their actions and the heightened fears and anxiety they have engendered in the targeted immigrant communities recall the notorious “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”

Like today, the Act was a product of a deeply divided nation.

It compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and denied jury trial to captured slaves. It imposed heavy penalties on those who interfered with the rendition process.  Nevertheless, determined resistance by abolitionists in the Northern states stifled enforcement, often through “personal liberty laws” that mandated a jury trial.  Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1864, near the end of the Civil War.

Although immigrants, not slaves, are Trump’s targets, the President’s new immigration policy is similar to the Fugitive Slave Act in several key respects.  Its bloodhound tactics, its application across state lines, its deputizing of local police and its limited channels for legal recourse mirror the 1850 Act.

Under the Act, slaves were hunted down and returned to their masters.  Under the administration’s new immigration enforcement policy, suspected immigrants are to be searched out, apprehended, detained and expeditiously deported.  Immigrant families who have lawfully resided in the United States for years or even decades can be deported without judicial proceedings, even if charged with a minor traffic violation.

The New York Times on February 21 cited the case of Kristina (not her real name) who was alarmed to learn that she would be a prime target for deportation under the new policy. She was quoted as saying: “We have our whole lives here; our children are citizens. Now I don’t know if I can go out, if I should drive.”

Never mind that the harsh enforcement can forcibly separate family members, removing a breadwinner.  Never mind that immigrant families all over the countries are put in terror.  Never mind that immigrants with citizenship, permanent resident status or official visas will be harassed through inevitable racial stereotyping.  Other minorities may soon wonder: “Are we next?”

Like pre-Civil War abolitionists, members of faith communities and political activists are uniting in towns and cities across America to express their strong opposition to the harsh enforcement of immigration laws.

They point out that Mr. Trump’s enforcement policies fail to distinguish between immigrants who have entered the country illegally (a misdemeanor, not a felony) and the majority who have simply overstayed a visa (a civil, not a criminal offense).  Other misdemeanors are normally punished by no more than a year in jail—hardly the equivalent of sudden deportation.

Critics argue that policies that deputize local officials to perform ICE duties will impair the healthy relationship of trust required for community policing, the reporting of crimes and recourse to 911 emergency calls.

Despite the administration’s threat to cut off federal funds to so-called “sanctuary cities,” increasing numbers of towns and cities are enacting local laws to prevent their police officers from being used to enforce immigration laws.  A “Safe Communities Act” now before the Massachusetts legislature has gained some 80 co-sponsors.

An immigration enforcement policy that snatches and speedily deports immigrants from a community is unwise economic policy, for it causes that community to lose needed workers and tax revenues.

An immigration enforcement policy that substitutes criminal searches for a sensible immigration law in the name of national security ignores the fact that more terrorist acts in the U.S. have been committed by citizens than by immigrants.

The challenge now is for “modern-day abolitionists” to protect law- abiding immigrants and other people of color in their communities from immigration enforcement that violates American values of justice, fairness and human rights.

More articles by:

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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