President Trump’s executive order barring refugees from Muslim-majority countries and his frequent threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants bring to mind another era when the federal government acted forcefully to apprehend men, women, and children fleeing oppressive conditions. In 1850, Congress passed and President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act. The law authorized federal marshals to capture people who had escaped from the slaveholding Old South, federal commissioners to order their return to bondage, and federal troops to carry out these orders. The act made it a federal crime to aid fugitive slaves or refuse to assist in their capture; it also stripped accused runaways of their legal rights, including to testify on their own behalf, and invalidated numerous state laws meant to protect Northern blacks from kidnapping and sale into slavery.
History never really repeats itself, but uncanny resemblances exist between the pre–Civil War years and our own time, in terms of both the actions of the federal government and the resistance it has evoked. Of course, despite their travails, today’s refugees are not fleeing conditions as horrific as American slavery. But just as many communities now offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and bar local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officers, numerous Northern states beginning in the 1820s passed “personal-liberty laws” that prohibited state and local officials from assisting in the capture and return of fugitives. As with today’s undocumented or fleeing migrants, judges issued writs of habeas corpus to prevent the return of fugitives to slavery, and Canada offered refuge to those unable to enjoy freedom in the United States.