“I have lived all my life without suffering any known inconvenience from American slavery,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1854. “I never saw it; never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action.”
By the time Emerson wrote these lines, slavery had been a sordid fact of American life for more than two centuries. For the celebrated writer, however, it was something of an abstraction. Massachusetts had outlawed the practice in 1783, and Emerson, who lived in Concord, had little first-hand experience of the south. Like many of the most woke Americans of his era, he was content to disapprove from a distance without doing anything in particular about the “peculiar institution”.
What changed all this was not anything new in the circumstances of those enslaved on southern plantations. The everyday brutality of their lives had been going on for generations. No, the galvanizing force here was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which made it illegal for northerners to assist escaping slaves.
In fact, harboring a fugitive slave in a free state had been illegal since 1793. It was under this very statute that Solomon Northup had been kidnapped and brought to a plantation in 1841 – an ordeal he later memorialized in his book 12 Years a Slave. But the new law was more draconian than its predecessor: it obliged federal officials to help slave hunters in their wretched task and stripped away all due process protections for their victims.
This filthy enactment was made in the 19th century, by people who could read & write. I will not obey it, by GodRalph Waldo Emerson
For Emerson and many of his peers, the new statute shoved all the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery right under their noses. There were repeated riots and demonstrations in Boston as fugitives (and sometimes free black men) were detained and shipped back down south. Vermont and Wisconsin passed legal measures designed to invalidate the law. For many in the north, there was a decisive shift in consciousness, as the abstraction of human chattel became very much a matter of flesh and blood. Emerson, who eventually became a fiery abolitionist, confided to his journal his disbelief that “this filthy enactment was made in the 19th century, by people who could read & write. I will not obey it, by God.”
Are we approaching a similar turning point in regard to this nation’s immigration crisis? The parallels are many, and striking. The laws themselves have not changed in any substantial way since the passage of Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. For many years, it has been perfectly legal to deport people who have lived here for decades, to separate families, to chase down noncitizens in communities across America. For that matter, Ice claims it may detain even US citizens indefinitely, as long as a removal proceeding is under way.
Two things, however, have changed. One is a stepped-up enforcement regimen, whose latest chapter unfolded on 22 July, when the Trump administration announced that it would begin an “expedited removal” program. Like the Fugitive Slave Act, the new program trashes due process protections: immigrants subject to its provisions can be removed without an administrative hearing or access to an attorney. According to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly 300,000 immigrants may now face rapid deportation. The program is also guaranteed to ensnare many more lawful residents and even US citizens – although Ice agents have no more statutory power over citizens than slave catchers had over Solomon Northup, who was a free man when he was abducted.
The other great change is in public consciousness. The footage of toddlers separated from their families, of detained immigrants in cages, sleeping on concrete floors and drinking from toilets – these images have accomplished what a thousand policy arguments could not. They have made the plight and pain of such immigrants real for innumerable Americans. They have led to mass protests in Chicago, Washington, New York, Seattle, Phoenix, and many other communities. In Texas, a crowd marched on a hastily erected tent city where DHS was holding hundreds of unaccompanied minors, and in Colorado, protestors stormed an Ice facility and hoisted the Mexican flag overhead.
An awakened conscience can go only so far. It will take much more to abolish the laws behind the pens in our deserts and the Ice raids on our cities. After all, it wasn’t public outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the final erasure of slavery in the United States. That required the bloodiest war in American history. It will be difficult to conquer the current wave of xenophobia, aided and abetted by the crudest opportunist ever to occupy the White House. But hearts and minds are essential to any hope of change. And perhaps the crisis of today will be as clarifying as the one of 1850 – which, Emerson gratefully noted, “had the illuminating power of a sheet of lightning at midnight”.
Jackie Stevens is a political scientist and the founding director of the Deportation Research Clinic at Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. James Marcus is at work on his second book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Fourteen Installments