The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stipulated that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to the one who purchased or inherited them and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Essentially, this law made it illegal for anyone in the United States to provide aid to human beings escaping slavery, mutilation, branding, torture, extortion, and rape.
Fast forward to today, as many as 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are now living in the United States, more than double the estimated 1.5 million people in 2000. About 55 percent of them are undocumented.
Why are they risking everything to come here?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations: "El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world. El Salvador became the world's most violent country not at war in 2015, when gang-related violence brought its homicide rate to 103 per hundred thousand".all three countries have significantly higher homicide rates than neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama"Extortion is also rampant."
A recent investigation by the Honduran newspaper La Prensa found that "Salvadorans and Hondurans pay an estimated $390 million, $200 million, and $61 million, respectively, in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. Extortionists primarily target public transportation operators, small businesses, and residents of poor neighborhoods" attacks on people who do not pay contribute to the violence."
I think there is an important comparison to be made between the situation in 1850 and the current migrant crisis happening on the border. Upon reflection, it always strikes me how little is remembered about the slave kidnappers, plantation owners, Fugitive Slave Law enforcers, and politicians who endorsed pro- slavery legislation. Who recalls the slave hunter Patty Cannon and her merciless gang? How about John Breckinridge (1821-1875), Vice President of the U.S. and Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America? What about Stephen Duncan (1787-1867), a doctor from Pennsylvania who became the wealthiest Southern cotton planter before the Civil War, with 14 plantations? Or Edwin Epps, 10 year owner of Solomon Northrup, author of Twelve Years a Slave? Who remembers these people?
Match this ignoble list to the abolitionists of that same era: names such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, William L. Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. How has history appraised their actions? Have they not become moral giants? Are they not the ones whom our children learn about in school? Are they not the finest examples of what it means to be conscientious and compassionate members of the human race?
Today's immigration and migrant abolitionists may find themselves overriding prejudiced and capricious laws-they may even find themselves in jail. But as with the great freedom fighters of the 19th century, history will reward those who stand on the right side of justice.
In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, "whether permitted to live to witness the abolition of slavery or not, I felt assured that, as I demanded nothing that was not clearly in accordance with justice and humanity, sometime or other, if remembered at all, I should stand vindicated in the eyes of my countrymen."
George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, domestic violence counselor, an adjunct professor of philosophy. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.