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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New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.

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