Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Sensenbrenner Bill (HR 4437) and The Fugitive Slave Act: A comparitive study

So I know that you have been waiting for me to talk about it. You probably wonder what's been taking me so long.

I've been biding my time, taking in everything that has been said (and has not been said) and forming an intellectual opinion rather than a visceral reaction. Also, I'm a full time grad student who works nearly full time running a community program-- you do the math.

So let's talk IMMIGRATION.

At one point I was itching to go on a rant about how on God's blessed Earth the House could have possibly passed such a clearly prejudiced and inhumane bill. A bill that would make undocumented immigrants aggravated felons and criminalize people like me, who work with immigrants-- many whose immigration status is unclear to me. But I didn't.

What I did do was take the time to read the bill and, by virtue of being a MPH candidate, engage in some intellectual discourse about the situation. During one of my many conversations about this, someone said something that set the cherries ringing in my head. The statement was so profound, I was speechless (and those of you who know me know THAT never happens.)

Quite simply she said this: "If you think about it, HR4437 is really not very different from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850."

She's right.

Think about it carefully... go all the way back to your high school American History Class (I know, its painful for me too). If your school curriculum even covered slavery in any great detail, there was mention of this act as part of the Compromise of 1850.

Breifly stated, after the U.S. obtained the territory that is now California, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona from Mexico, California applied for Statehood. California wanted to be admitted as a Free State, throwing off the balance between so-called Free States and Slave States in America. To appease the Southern Slave States Senator Henry Clay proposed a compromise. Part of this compromise was that escaped or fugitive slaves whether they resided Slave or Free Sates were now considered aggravated felons who were to be captured by the Federal Government who had the right to use local enforcement agencies and deputized citizens with or without their consent to aid in the capture and return of slaves (and free born Blacks-- they made no distinction). The alleged fugitive slaves may or may not receive a trial in which they were not allowed to testify-- only the testimony of the alleged slave owner was admitted to evidence Moreover, anyone who helped a fugitive slave IN ANY WAY was considered to be a criminal to be prosecuted, fined and sent to prison.

The Sensenbrenner Bill HR4437 proposes in broad terminology that immigrants who are undocumented in the United States should be considered aggravated felons. Certain aspects of the language in the bill include using Federal money and agencies to have these people deported back to their country of origin. The Federal Government will be enabled to use local law enforcement, community agencies (with or without their consent) and deputized citizenry to assist in the apprehension and detainment of undocumented immigrants until they can be deported . The undocumented immigrants may or may not receive a trial in which they may or may not be able to testify on their own behalf. Finally, anyone who helps an undocumented immigrant IN ANY WAY is considered to be aiding and abetting a felon-- a criminal act punishable by inprisonment.

Hmmm... part of me wonders if Representative Sensenbrenner just lifted the Fugitive Slave Act from the shelves, dusted it off and replaced "fugitive slave" with "illegal immigrant."

I had the unique opportunity of speaking with a policy advocate who had actually had a meeting with Rep. Sensenbrenner. She told me that he made a statement to the effect of
"I have no problem with immigrants. Except for those Latinos."
Then he caught himself when he realized what he said and who he had said it to. But you know the saying "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."

Well, I'm not going to inject any editorial comments on this one. I'm going to leave you to your own intellectual devices. If you think what I wrote above is poppycock and that I'm taking it too far, I suggest you check out these links and read for yourself. Be warned, the legislation is a little dense and you have to 'cut through the mustard' to get the gist of everything. But it is a worthwhile activity. (Sections 5-7)

I leave you with this to ponder.

Given the implications of HR 4437 and the fact that it has already passed in the House and has a pretty decent chance of passing in the Senate, do you think the American government is trying to test the limits of the American Consciousness? Seeing what extremes we will actually put up with? And are we paying attention? Because if they can pass a bill so similar in its root philosophy to the Fugitive Slave Act, what are they going to try and pass right under our noses next?