Hunting Fugitives, Then and Now


In 1851, Bostonians whose “crime” was escaping slavery were warned to avoid local police.  The president now wants local police to capture people whose only “crime” is BWF (Breathing While Foreign).  Déjà vu?

Joey here.

The 1787 U.S. Constitution didn’t mention slavery.  Not outright.

One must read between the lines.

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 (substituting “Slavery” for the original “Service or Labour”):

No Person held to [Slavery] in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such [Slavery], but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such [Slavery] may be due.”

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act decreed severe punishment – fines ($30,000 in today’s dollars), payment of restitution, and imprisonment – for Americans who did not deliver escaped slaves to their masters.

Today we are disgusted by the people who obeyed the law (and the Constitution) and returned slaves to slavery.

We honor people like Harriet Tubman and Luther Lee who defied the law.  Good people hid and harbored escaped slaves.  They pushed back against the Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling (1857) that no one of African ancestry could be an American citizen.  They were part of the Underground Railroad, transporting people to freedom in Canada.


The image of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped dozens more slaves reach freedom in Canada, will appear on a new U.S. $20 bill.


From The Autobiography of Rev. Luther Lee (1882), pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, NY:  “I never had obeyed [the Fugitive Slave Act]—I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the United States authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga-street. I would admit that they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough in Onondaga County to level it with the ground before the next morning.”

Jeffrey has defended refugees from countries where slavery still exists.  His clients suffered from physical and psychological atrocities as horrifying as what American slaves endured.  So forgive us if we see parallels between America’s slaves and their descendants – who were deprived of citizenship until after the Civil War, deprived of human rights for 100 years after that, and still suffer the effects of this persecution – and today’s refugees and other desperate migrants.

We ask ourselves:  In 1850s America, would we have hunted down fugitive slaves?  In 1930s America, would we have rejected refugees fleeing the Nazis?  In 1940s Europe, would we have ignored or betrayed innocent Jews and others whom the law declared were enemies?

We hadn’t thought that Americans would be faced with such questions in our own era.  The application of our immigration, refugee and asylum laws, in fits and starts, has tended to become more humane since 1980 . . .


Jeffrey created this clipart montage to evoke a government (!) poster he recalls from (perhaps) the second Bush administration, showing the American eagle sheltering refugees.

. . . until now.

The new president has tried to bar refugees from the United States.  That is illegal and immoral.

He has ordered the arrest and expulsion of millions of our neighbors, friends and families.  That is legal and immoral – like the Fugitive Slave Act.

We will not turn our backs on the new slaves, the new Jews, the new refugees.

We denounce presidential orders that lie about refugees, that slander and ban refugees as mysterious and dangerous.

We will not cooperate with those who hunt down peaceful members of our community, to take them from the people they work with, worship with, do business with, and love.

Since years before I joined Jeffrey and Nancy in 1991, they and their children have housed and transported and fed and supported refugees from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  They do it because . . .


. . . Jeffrey’s and Nancy’s people were refugees . . .


. . . the Bible says to welcome and protect the stranger, to treat the stranger the same as the citizen, to love the stranger . . .

. . . if they didn’t help, they’d be ashamed . . . and because they are Americans.

Let’s say NO to enforcement of the modern version of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Let’s fight it, however we can.

To start, let’s stop the slurs against people who exercise their moral and legal right to come to the U.S. and ask for refuge.  Let’s stop the slurs against unauthorized immigrants who have settled here.  Let’s gently explain the destructive power of careless language, to friends and neighbors who are cruel without realizing it.

Listen to Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor, the late Elie Wiesel:

“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal.  That is a contradiction in terms.  Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal?  How can a human being be illegal? … [O]nce you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.  You do not label a people ‘illegal.’  They have committed an illegal act.  They are immigrants who crossed illegally.  They are immigrants who crossed without papers.  They are immigrants who crossed without permission.  They are living in this country without permission.  But they are not an illegal people.”

And let’s band together, through groups like Human Rights First . . .


. . . to stop the president from reinstating torture; to stop the villification of women, Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, Jews, immigrants, Democrats, Syrians, the LGBTQ, the press, and others, who do not conform to a ruler’s idea of the “norm”; to stop refugee bans that violate our laws and morals; to stop seizing and deporting people whose “crime” is living and working and caring for family; to stop propaganda that encourages the misinformed to bully our neighbors.

Let’s put Human Rights FIRST.

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