Where, outside of a marginalized left, are today’s equivalent of the antebellum radical Republicans, “ready and willing to destroy” the coercive deportation regime? Where are the absolutists, who would brook no compromise, who would rather see the republic ripped apart than tolerate an immigration system that denies equal rights to millions upon millions of people; that brutalizes families, generates thousands upon thousands of desert deaths, and breeds sexual terror, be it on the journey here, in the factory and field, or in the closed quarters of the home, where women workers have limited protections and where fear trumps whatever slim recourse to the law they might have (that is, when the law itself isn’t the rapist)? Where is the equal of William Lloyd Garrison, capable of both analytically dissecting and morally condemning public policy that compels migration (through trade policies like NAFTA and CAFTA) and then denies the humanity of the migrants once they get here; a regime that relies on a carceral, militarized state for its perpetuation? In the 1840s, radical constitutionalists like Alvan Stewart cut through procedural objections against executive action by arguing that the principle of universal equality is found in the common law of the United States and in the due-process clause of the Constitution. Where are those legal insurgents today insisting that forcing millions of people to live like serfs enthralled to their lord-employers is illegal? That the constitution doesn’t just authorize Barack Obama to limit some deportations—it authorizes him to strike the whole damn regime down. Who are today’s dissenting intellectuals with the comparable influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who after the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act urged collective resistance against the law?
We certainly have their opposite. The opponents of even the mildest program of immigration reform are as passionate in their denunciations and comprehensive in their analysis as John Calhoun was in his day when he said that slavery didn’t contradict but rather made republican liberty possible. Whenever a Democrat merely hints at a comparison between slavery then and undocumented migration now, they pounce, such as when Nancy Pelosi, referring to Obama’s recent executive action limiting some deportations, said that “the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order.”
Back in the nineteenth century, defenders of slavery drove wedges between white and black. Let the reformers, they said, use their “great interest to procure an Abolition of the horrid white slavery trade which is carried on under their own noses…thousands of white people, those white people Christians, and those Christians, are, English people, Scotch People, Welch People, and Irish People, who are every year exported to the United States of America, where they are made miserable slaves.” Today, defenders of immigration “enforcement” use those same wedges to separate Latino migrants and “native-born minorities.” The House’s Immigration Subcommittee, now led by a group of anti-Latino irreconcilables—among them, Steve King and Lamar Smith—holds “Blacks versus Latinos” hearings, where “experts” testify to the special “advantages” and “preferences” undocumented immigrants enjoy over “African minority workers” in the job market and the “benefit” Latinos receive from making a “false immigrant/US civil rights struggle analogy.”