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New America Media, Commentary
Jean Damu, Posted: Sep 13, 2007
Editor’s Note: Raids on undocumented workers today are nothing new for African Americans, who saw raids on their own population more than 150 years ago.
In August local law enforcement and immigration officials in a small Pennsylvania town began receiving reports that undocumented immigrants were being offered sanctuary at a nearby residence. Furthermore, the reports went on to say, during the daytime hours, the immigrants were blending into portions of the local population and working in one of the city’s factories.
After several weeks of investigation, the authorities determined that, in fact, the reports of the undocumented immigrants’ activities were true.
In response to this perceived emergency, an interagency task force of immigration and local police personnel was organized. It was decided that an early morning raid would be the quickest and safest way to take the immigrants into custody and to prepare them for deportation.
The raid was carried out in September. After a brief struggle, the undocumented were overpowered, handcuffed and taken to jail, where they were told to prepare themselves for hearings to determine their eligibility for deportation.
The above incident is not unusual. It has played out countless times, in countless cities across the nation, as the United States struggles to come to grips with a moral question that is rooted in economics – the issue of undocumented workers.
The unusual aspect of the story, however, is that it did not take place in 2007 or 2006. It took place in the town of Christiana , Pa. And it took place in 1850.
In 1850, it was not the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that conducted the early morning raid, but rather an office of the U.S. Marshal and Deputy Marshal. And in 1850, the undocumented that were being rounded up were not Latinos or Asians but rather fugitive enslaved Africans who had crossed into Pennsylvania from Delaware in an attempt to escape slavery.
The fugitives were given sanctuary by members of the Black Self-Help Society, an armed organization that was formed many decades before the African Blood Brotherhood and the Black Panther Party. The group foreshadowed by only a few years the entry by massive numbers of blacks into the Union armies to fight the formerly officially endorsed “slavocracy.”
The right-wing political powers of the 21st century that re-configured the Immigration and Naturalization Service into ICE – the agency that is currently conducting raids against “illegal immigrants” as a response to the so-called “war on terrorism” – are direct descendants of those who created the U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshals to enforce the fugitive slave legislations of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the case of the Federal Marshals, the enforcement of immigration laws was fueled by politicians’ pandering to the political forces that would deliver free labor to the agrarian south and keep the United States a white man’s country. This objective was eloquently articulated in America ’s first immigration legislation adopted in 1789 as part of the establishment of the federal government and the year the U.S. Marshal’s office was brought into being.
Though the conditions of life are vastly more complicated today than when the first immigration laws were enacted, one can easily come to the conclusion that one of ICE’s unstated missions is to help maintain white supremacy. If this is not true, then why does no one discuss the issue of undocumented white workers who enter the country from Europe and Canada?
It is tempting to argue that the immigration movement is completely analogous to the abolitionist movement. That would be a mistake. After all, who would want to claim that deporting someone to Mexico is the same as returning them to slavery? But the similarities are powerful enough to convince many African Americans that it is in their best interest to support those who struggle against black people’s historic enemies.
It took decades of abolitionist work and unprecedented armed struggle to wrest the practice of slavery from the breast of America . Similar decades of educational work and political organizing were required to convince the majority of Americans that legalized discrimination in the form of the Jim Crow laws was also wrong. That struggle continues to this day.
Today there is much misunderstanding and confusion over immigration: some say the issue is too complicated, that there are too many global economic forces at work for the lay person to fully grasp. This is no different from earlier times when much confusion and misunderstanding existed in regards to slavery. In both cases, racism and unbridled white supremacy joined hands to generate the confusion.
Though the issue of immigration has been around since the birth of this nation, the current immigration movement is still in its early stages. If it is to achieve the perceived successes of the civil rights movement, it must do a better job of uniting with that sector of the U.S. population that so clearly participated in and benefited to a significant degree from the civil rights movement: Black America. On the other hand, African Americans should be sensitive to the current conditions in which many immigrants find themselves. These conditions, after all, are not unfamiliar to us.
Jean Damu is a member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Red Nacional Pro Derechos Inmigrantes y Refugiados
310 8th Street Suite 303
Oakland , CA 94607
Tel (510) 465-1984 ext. 305
Fax (510) 465-1885
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