In 1854, the Runaway Slave Act was enthusiastically signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. In addition to mandating that all local law enforcement agencies apprehend and return freemen that had escaped the jaws of slavery, the law added provisions that those who had proved to aid “runaway slaves” suffer legal punishments up to six months in prison.
This overlaps significantly with the official draft of an executive order to be signed by President Donald Trump in the days after his inauguration. The draft states that “the policy of the United States [is] to identify and remove, as expeditiously as possible, any alien who has become a public charge.”
The same order adds that it shall be our country’s policy to “seek reimbursement from all sponsors of immigrants for the costs of Federal means-tested public benefits provided to sponsored immigrants.” Both portions of this executive order, written in January, bear a resemblance to the Runaway Slave Act. Both are decidedly inhumane, unscrupulous, and pathetic attempts to indulge in xenophobia and ethno-nationalism.
The similarities are many. The Runaway Slave Act demanded legal recourse for those who assisted former slaves that had escaped the claws of their masters. The executive order demands that those who choose to house or support undocumented immigrants face legal recourse for any assistance provided.
Furthermore, the Runaway Slave Act predicated itself on the opinion that someone who had escaped from what was initially kidnapping (the slave trade) was in the wrong for escaping from where the kidnapping landed their ancestors. Today, the Trump White House’s executive order predicates itself on the concept that undocumented immigrants are leeches of the public good—not contributing to American society but merely benefiting from its safety net.
Given how integral first generation immigrants have been to our country’s labor force for nearly two centuries, this is absurd.
America has had policies of intolerance before, including the Runaway Slave Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and many others. Former President Barack Obama’s statement regarding intolerance—“That’s not who we are”—is observably false. Intolerance isn’t who I am, and it isn’t who he is. It probably isn’t who a majority of Americans are. And yet, our country is engaging in intolerance and has done so time and time again.
I remain hopeful for America’s future. Yet it is clear that ethno-nationalism is a belief that has achieved popularity frequently throughout America’s history and with many Americans today. With that in mind, I love to see people earnestly spreading knowledge of all cultures and their rich, varied histories. What I don’t like to see is people who believe that our nation fully embraces of diversity. This is because we haven’t accomplished such a goal. In most of America, you would be hard pressed to find someone that values immigrants from Chile as much as those from Austria.
Instead of deriding intolerance by saying “That’s not who we are,” progressives like Obama and myself should say “this is less and less of who we are and it isn’t at all what a great nation-state can afford to be.” This statement would acknowledge the unpleasant elements of our history and therefore allow a more candid conversation to improve our laws and values. We will be lying to ourselves if we keep saying “That’s not who we are.” We have been “that” before and are currently embracing “that” once more.