The Sanctuary Movement and Fugitive Slaves

more street and museum art from Oaxaca

Oaxaca   This past summer a federal judge in California ruled that state’s sanctuary law was legal.  Officials and police could not interfere with federal immigration officers’ efforts to arrest and detain immigrants in the United States, but neither were they legally required to assist in these efforts.  Predictably, the decision was roundly derided by anti-immigrant conservatives, the Stephen Miller section of the West Wing, and Fox friends and fellow travelers.

Recently I read, The War before the War:  Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, by Andrew Delbanco, and I’m still in the process of reading the much longer book on Frederick Douglass, on most lists as perhaps the best book of the year.  Delbanco makes a strong case that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850, engineered by Henry Clay was perhaps the final trigger to the Civil War, and at the least a prime dividing line between states over the issue.  The Fugitive Slave Law upped the ante by not only allowing slaveholders to capture fugitive slaves, but requiring citizens and authorities in non-slaveholding states to actively aid and assist in the capture and return of slaves, which many continued to refuse to do.

None of that is necessarily news, at least for those of us who learned history in an earlier generation before Texas and other states attempted to leech the primacy of slavery as the critical issue that led to the War Between the States.  What was striking to me in Professor Delbanco’s book was his rich treatment of the effort by different states and cities to pass legislation to actively – or passively – resist various iterations of fugitive slave acts including the most aggressive one in 1850.   It was hard not to see some of these efforts as analogous to contemporary sanctuary acts by cities and states, despite the huge differences between slaves and immigrants, whether “welcoming” acts or outright resistance.

Like most organizers, I have spent my career “practicing law without a license.”  I have always been clear that the most sanctified rights in the US Constitution are those concerning property.  The horror of slavery saw people as property no different from land or animals.  Despite the dancing around of the founders in refusing to put a name to the contradictions of pretending to establish freedom even while abiding slavery, if states and some cities, like Boston and Rochester, could so actively – and creatively – resist even the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, that must provide even more solid ground to maintain sanctuaries around immigrants and asylum seekers who have never been property.

The 1850 act was necessary precisely because many states refused to return slaves.   Several had passed laws within their jurisdictions determining that if a slave had lived in their state for a certain period of time from six months to two years in a free state, then the slave was no longer chattel, but was eligible for freedom.  The whole point of the Underground Railroad and slave-catchers, whether from history or in the great novel Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, was the back and forth between legal rights argued by Southerners protecting their property and the resistance of Northerners refusing to allow capture and return.

Here’s my question for the real lawyers:  where might there be additional precedents for cities and states in creating not only sanctuary but arguable legal rights for immigrants?

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Meeting the Challenge of Organizing Immigrant and Domestic Workers

Rabat   We got a good look at alternative strategies to meet the demand of immigrant and domestic workers in Morocco, one from an NGO project with the African Cultural Center of Morocco and the other from a feisty, political union of 18,000 members that had created a “section” for immigrant workers, domestics, and others, like street sellers.

Rose Monde and the NGO

Rose Monde and her colleagues were sharp as tacks and very articulate. They had narrowed their focus within the outlines of a European Union grant over recent years to the sub-set of domestic workers who were from sub-Saharan countries, like the Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Their estimate of the total numbers of domestics in the country and in Rabat, the capital, were huge and in the six figures, but their target was only a couple of thousand. Their main strategy had been education and training in various conferences over the years of the project. The butcher paper on the walls, looked like they had a good understanding of the issues and abuse, but might not have succeeded in forging tactics for effective response. They touted the law that would protect some workers from some of the more extreme abuses, but it still had another year to go before implementation, so it was unclear what their options might be now.

They agreed with the ODT, the Democratic Organization of Workers, and its leadership on several issues, one of them being the fact that Morocco has become less a transition stop for migrant workers moving to Europe, than a destination location now. The ODT was a younger union and touted its inclusiveness and openness to various workers. They ran what they called parallel structures with the formal workers and then the various sections of informal and immigrant workers running semi-autonomous programs within them. They were proud of being the first to welcome immigrant workers.

The legal framework for immigrants is fraught. The law allows a process of receiving registration that allows the ability to work. In a provision that only President Trump could love, they have to re-register annually and certify that no native Moroccan is interested in the job. If not, all good. If so, away you go!

With such a far-flung membership and several offices around the country, the fact that ODT opens its ranks is a smart strategy for growth in the future with limited investment or capacity in the present. Ali Lotfi, the General Secretary, of the union was proud of his international labor contacts, and mentioned having been at the SEIU convention and heard Hillary Clinton speak. He said they had also helped on the McDonalds’ campaign.

The ODT is worth watching. They are doing some interesting work, even if we were sometimes struggling to put our arms around it. The ACM project has some good staff, research, and skills, but lacks some of the innovative instincts and aggressiveness of the ODT.

Immigrants and domestic workers with a clear view of their plight are probably wishing there was one plan to build a real organization so that they could win their rights and protect them. Hopefully we’ll hear about that in the next stage.

Please enjoy David Bowie’s Suffragette City.

Thanks to KABF.

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