From the Boston Banner
A new era of slave catchersPlease tell me that someone did not seriously attempt to compare American chattel slavery to illegal immigration. Please.
In the 19th century, many people who were owned as slaves in the South undertook "self-emancipation." They ran away and fled the South by whatever means possible. Some walked to freedom. Some got on commercial ships and worked their way to safe country. One brave couple - a very light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man - took the train to freedom by pretending that she was the mistress and he was the servant. Many ended up in Boston, New Bedford, Fairhaven, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Then the federal government allowed former owners of slaves themselves or their agents to seek out and capture their "property" that had settled in the North. People of color lived in fear of the slave catchers, of their discovery by unsympathetic citizens or of other ways in which their former owners could capture them and return them to shackles.
Some stood in their defense, but many kept silent. They had broken the law. They had fled their homeland in the South. So they were "illegal" immigrants to the North. It mattered not if they worked, went to church, raised families or contributed to the common good. It was against the law for them to seek liberty and opportunity, to break their shackles - to live like free people.
Now, in the 21st century, 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, another people have fled both economic and political repression to come to this country to seek freedom and opportunity. The immigrants from countries south of our border have not come to break the law. They have come to seek the same opportunities for freedom. They have come to feed their families. They have come to support their families who remain in their former towns and villages.
And the new slave catchers, employees of the U.S. government, sweep down like vultures to capture those who have tried to liberate themselves. And they find them - not in the welfare offices, not begging on street corners, but working in substandard conditions for substandard wages.
It is more than ironic that in New Bedford, the dreadful sweep was undertaken in the inhumane factory of a manufacturer whose primary client was the United States government. So families were torn apart. Children - many born here and thus citizens - have lost their parents. Wives and husbands have been separated. Who knows when and how they will be reunited? And people who have been working, contributing to the safety of our soldiers in Iraq, are torn from their livelihood and their hope.
Never mind that they have been working in substandard conditions. Never mind that they have been enslaved by greedy employers. Never mind that they have chosen the limited options available to them to support their families.
Those who are arrested in the name of illegal entry to the United States and then isolated in captivity are taken before an immigration judge, without adequate counsel, and shipped somewhere to await deportation. Try to find a particular person who has been captured by the immigration authorities. Try to locate them. Try to visit them. You will likely fail.
These images of families torn apart - of children ripped from the safety of their families, of husbands separated from wives - are they that different from the now-fading images of African American slave families torn apart by the brutality of slavery?
The cries of children and mothers, of fathers and brothers are no different today. They are only uttered with a different accent.
At the same time, we read in the newspaper that some farmers are trying to get the government to loan out prisoners to harvest the fields because there are not enough migrant laborers. Change one type of slave labor for another. This is happening in the land of freedom and opportunity.
These actions of the government are shameful. We have denied our heritage. We have trampled on our ideals. We have witnessed a dreadful injustice. We have kept silent. We have failed our democracy.
Ed Blackman is the former pastor of Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury and is a member of the board of the Museum of African American History.