Reflections on the ICE raids  

October 1, 2007 - 0:0

In August local law enforcement and immigration officials began to receive reports that a group of undocumented immigrants was being offered sanctuary at a nearby residence. Furthermore, the reports went on to say, during the daytime hours, the immigrants were blending into portions of the local population and working in one of the city’s factories.

After several weeks of investigation the authorities determined that in fact the reports of the undocumented’s activities were true.
In response to this perceived emergency, an interagency task force of immigration and local police personnel was organized. It was decided that an early morning raid would be the quickest and safest way to take the immigrants into custody and to prepare them for deportation.
In September the raid was carried out. After a brief struggle the undocumented were overpowered, handcuffed and taken to jail; whereupon they were told to prepare themselves for hearings to determine their eligibility for deportation.
The above incident, true in all respects, was not unusual. It has played out countless times, in countless cities across the nation, as the U.S. struggles to comes to grips with a moral issue that is rooted in economics --the issue of undocumented workers.
The unusual aspect of our story is that it did not take place in Oakland or San Jose, California or any other region with a large Latino population. And it did not take place in 2006 or even 2005. It took place in a small Pennsylvania town named Christiana, which lies just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, that political construction that demarcates the North from the South. And it took place in 1850.
In 1850 it was not the office of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) that conducted the early morning raid, but rather an office of the U.S. Marshal and Deputy Marshal. And in 1850 the undocumented that were being rounded up were not Latinos or Asians but rather fugitive enslaved Africans that had crossed into Pennsylvania from Delaware in an attempt to escape slavery.
In the Christiana incident the fugitives were given sanctuary by members of the Black Self-Help Society, an armed organization that preceded by many decades the African Blood Brotherhood and the Black Panther Party but foreshadowed by only a few years entry by massive numbers of Blacks into the Union armies to fight the formerly officially endorsed slavocracy.
The right-wing political powers of the 21st century that reconfigured the Immigration and Naturalization Service into ICE, that currently is conducting raids against “illegal immigrants” as a response to the so-called “war on terrorism”, are direct descendants of those who created the U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshals as an agency to enforce the fugitive slave legislations of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the case of the Federal Marshals, the enforcement of immigration laws was fueled by the pandering of most politicians of the day to the political forces that would deliver free labor to the agrarian south and keep the U.S. a white man’s country. This objective was eloquently articulated in America’s first immigration legislation adopted in 1789 as part of the establishment of the federal government and the year the U.S. Marshal’s office was brought into being.
Though the conditions of life are vastly more complicated today than when the first immigration laws were enacted, one can easily come to the conclusion that one of ICE’s unstated missions is to help maintain white supremacy. If it is not, why then does no one ever discuss the issue of undocumented white workers from Europe and Canada?
It is tempting to argue that the issues of the Immigration movement and the 19th century Abolitionist movement are completely analogous. That would be a mistake. After all, who would want to claim that deporting someone to Mexico is the same as returning them to slavery? But the similarities are powerful enough to convince many African Americans that it is in their best self-interests to support those who struggle against Black people’s historic enemies.
It took decades of educational abolitionist work and unprecedented armed struggle to wrest the practice of slavery from the breast of America. Similar decades of educational work and political organizing were required to convince the majority of Americans that legalized discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws was also wrong. That struggle continues to this day.
Today there is much misunderstanding and confusion -- some say the issue of immigration is too complicated, that there are too many global economic forces at work for the lay person to fully grasp the issue. This is not different from earlier times when much confusion and misunderstanding existed in regard to slavery. In both cases racism and unbridled white supremacy usually joined hands to generate the confusion.
Though the issue of immigration has been around since the birth of the nation, the current Immigration movement is still in its early stages. If it is to achieve the perceived successes of the Civil Rights movement, it must do a better job of uniting with that sector of the U.S. population that so clearly participated in and benefited to a significant degree from the Civil Rights movement -- Black America. On the other hand, African Americans should be sensitive to the current conditions in which many immigrants find themselves, conditions not unfamiliar to us.
Jean Damu is a member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration