Just as americans horrified by slavery fought first for the amelioration of its harshest cruelties before realizing that the only safeguard for slaves and their own consciences was the abolition of property rights over other people altogether, the travails of deportation will cease only with its abolition, and not by any piecemeal reforms.

There are more differences than similarities between the experiences of African slaves brought to or born in the Americas and those of twenty-first century residents without certain legal documents. The institution of slavery is unparalleled for its combined extremes of harsh, often deadly violence and daily, grinding exploitation. And the choices available to the vast majority of those crossing boundaries, albeit constrained by economic and political circumstances beyond their control, differ in kind from the choices that were available to those brought in chains and kept captive by whips and guns. But both slavery and deportations are rooted in the same nativist impulses of the nation-state — impulses conducive to the dehumanization and subjugation of foreigners. The political movements responding to these blatant injustices also share important traits.

The struggle against deportations responds to scenes appearing far too regularly in our country’s newspapers: the deportation of Emily Ruiz, a four-year-old U.S. citizen, who was sent to Guatemala with her grandfather after guards at JFK said his immigration records betrayed a minor, decades-old infraction; the deportation of Jakadrian Turner, a fourteen-year-old African American girl from Dallas who found herself in a mass removal hearing in a deportation court in Houston and — thinking she was going to be sent to Columbus, Ohio — agreed to be deported to Columbia; or the detention of Maria Luis, a mother kidnapped from her work-place, shackled, held in a deportation jail, and sent to a deportation court without an attorney or someone to translate from her native Mayan dialect. Without a translator, Luis was unable to explain that she had two young, U.S.-born children; as a result, they were among the thousands of children placed in state custody following their parents’ detention, according to the Applied Research Council.

Then there are the thousands of Alabama residents who, on the day after the legislature passed a bill requiring scrutiny of elementary school records, pulled their children out of classes and fled their homes and jobs. From Illinois to North Carolina, federal agents have monitored the parking lots of churches known to have Latino members. Deportation officers took a Minnesota resident born in Nigeria to a bank, forced her to withdraw $1,200 and then pocketed the cash themselves, along with her jewelry before shipping her out of the country on an illegal expedited removal order, ignoring her pleas about being married to a U.S. citizen and her pending immigration hearing.

The list of injustices goes on: Minors have been deported from Chicago after being coerced to sign removal orders without attorneys or hearings before immigration judges. U.S. citizens and others with a legal right to residency have been locked up for years as they prove their claims. When a deportation jail near Los Angeles closed down, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved the people waiting for their immigration hearings to Victorville, aka the Middle-of-Nowhere, the sort of prison-industrial city where the U.S. government is increasingly concentrating its new deportation facilities. At the same time, deportation officials and government attorneys are lying on deportation forms and in deportation courts, conspirators to the crime of kidnapping and other violations far more heinous than the administrative infractions with which they are charging the U.S. residents in their custody. Most of those locked up by deportation authorities have longstanding ties to this country, this being the incentive for them to remain in captivity awaiting a hearing that may be postponed indefinitely.

Last year the number of deaths among those crossing from Mexico doubled from previous years. According to a report by NBC: “For the past few years, the family-owned Elizondo Mortuary and Cremation Service in Mission, Texas, has been taking in the remains of undocumented immigrants found dead in nearby counties after crossing the border from Mexico. This year, however, they had to build an extra freezer. It’s become difficult to keep up with the rising tide of dead coming to them from across the Rio Grande Valley.”

The Economic Effects of Open Borders

The list of deadly, violent, humiliating, illegal, and often stupid acts perpetrated by our border and deportation policies seems unending; the rational, non-racist defenses of these policies nonexistent. The single apparently sensible defense is about jobs, an argument that says much about our country’s poor educational system and little about the impact of immigration on employment.

Mainstream economists agree that free movement results in a net increase in employment, and in turn to increased government revenues; in other words, immigration is a boon and not a drain on productivity for the private economy and for government coffers. In 1984, when Congress was in another period of contemplating a legislative response to large numbers of undocumented U.S. residents, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial stating:

If Washington still wants to “do something” about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders…. Trembling no-growthers cry that we’ll never “feed,” “house” or “clothe” all the immigrants — though the immigrants want to feed, house and clothe themselves. In fact, people are the great resource, and so long as we keep our economy free, more people means more growth, the more the merrier.

The editorial’s argument was equal parts economic and, to its authors’ credit, political:

The nativist patriots scream for “control of the borders.” It is nonsense to believe that this unenforceable legislation will provide any such thing. Does anyone want to “control the borders” at the moral expense of a 2,000-mile Berlin Wall with minefields, dogs and machine-gun towers? Those who mouth this slogan forget what America means. They want those of us already safely ensconced to erect giant signs warning: Keep Out, Private Property.

The Wall Street Journal regularly echoed this position around Independence Day and even published a 2001 piece by editorial page editor Robert Bartley titled “Open NAFTA Borders, Why Not?” The paper backed off this position after September 11, giving into the panic caused by al-Qaida, as did the rest of the country. The new Department of Homeland Security and hundreds of thousands of troops sent to the Middle East played into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who knew the attack would catalyze an irrational, expansionist military policy that would financially cripple the United States, along the lines of what happened in the Soviet Union from its occupation of Afghanistan. Instead of moving ahead on the guest worker program being negotiated with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox — a first step to making the U.S.-Mexico border akin to that between California and Arizona, both states that had been on the other side of that border — the United States pursued policies that led to sharp and enduring spikes in deadly violence in both regions.

A Rising Tide of Anti-Deportation Activism

As the country contemplates new policies toward immigrants, as pundits focus on the Latino vote, and as fissures widen between the Republican Party’s pragmatists and its vigilante Minutemen, one fact largely overlooked is that there is a burgeoning movement across the country seeking to slow or even destroy the deportation machine altogether, and it’s not just Latinos who are behind this.

From Tacoma, Washington, to Washington, D.C., attorneys, activists, journalists, scholars, and religious leaders are joining forces with targeted communities on behalf of free movement and against government brutality. Some of these include legislative efforts, like the one Miami attorney Michael Ray described during a 2012 National Lawyers Guild workshop at which civil rights attorneys were training immigration lawyers on how to sue the government for civil rights claims. Ray recounted how, frustrated with the immigration judges’ persistent refusal to accord the asylum claims of his Haitian clients with the respect given claims of people from other countries, he and four attorneys and human rights activists, asked for legislative change from their then-Rep. Carrie Meek (D-FL).

Rep. Meek gave the small group’s efforts her immediate support. “She organized a lot of the meetings with Congress-people and staff. The entire Florida delegation supported it,” Ray said. Within about eight months of their initial meeting, Rep. Meek introduced a bill and it passed. The Haitian Refugee Fairness Act allowed Haitians to become legal residents without applying for a visa from a U.S. consulate abroad. Ray, who favors the abolition of deportations, estimates that as a result of this bill, 60,000 to 80,000 Haitians have acquired legal status that otherwise would have been denied them. I asked Rep. Meek, now eighty-seven, if her being a granddaughter of slaves influenced her work on behalf of Haitians. “Most definitely,” she said. “America has required people to be on the outside looking in, and it takes all of us to change this.”

In the spring of 2012, a parish and activists of Chicago’s Little Village responded to a call for unity with residents of Crete, Illinois, who objected to their city council’s plan to allow the Correction Corporation of America to build a deportation jail. Crete President Michael Einhorn, who had been pushing for the facility, was incensed. “I’m not responsible to the people of Little Village,” he said, according to a report by public radio WBEZ. Meanwhile, Crete residents collected signatures opposing the plan and members of parishes and activist groups undertook a nationally covered three-day march from Chicago’s Little Village to Crete. On June 18, 2012, the Crete City Council voted to forgo further planning with the Correction Corporation of America.

Chicago-based artist and deportation abolitionist Rozalinda Borcila said Crete residents were initially skeptical: “They felt like a bunch of ‘brown people’ would elicit a hostile backlash.” But their views shifted as Borcila explained to them that they too were stakeholders. Little Village residents were firm in their desire to protest the facility being built to lock them up. “Our proposal was, if you have 700 brown people” march through rural Crete, “we’ll scare the crap out of them,” Borcila said.

The deportation abolitionists of Crete and Chicago are not alone. Shortly after that success, Florida anti-detention groups scuttled a decade-old plan underway that, according to a 2005 memorandum, would have allowed the Correction Corporation of America to build a 1,500-bed facility in Southwest Ranches in exchange for its agreement to pay the town $600,000 up front and 3 to 4 percent of its per diem compensation from the federal government. The opposition was an alliance of activists and lawyers who skillfully exploited conflicts between Southwest Ranches and the nearby city of Pembroke Pines, on which Southwest Ranches relies for fire and other services. The petitions and lawsuits opposing the deportation jail, including one for environmental impact assessments bearing on water and sewage treatment, appears to have eventually worn down U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, and a few days after Crete pulled out in Illinois, ICE itself backed down in Florida.

According to Burlington journalist and community organizer Jonathan Leavitt, the fight against what Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow” is also a fight against warehousing noncitizen residents. “Corporate prisons who only know how to maximize profits for shareholders have expanded their mission to incarcerating 50 percent of immigrants detained” in the United States, Leavitt writes in Toward Freedom. “Perhaps unsurprisingly the number of immigrants detained has exploded during the same period.” Leavitt notes, “A group of Vermonters working out of church basements and living rooms is attempting to build a movement to push this conversation forward by passing a historic law banning Vermont’s use of for-profit prisons.” That bill is now in the state Senate.

Envisioning a Future Beyond the Nation-State

It is hard to say how many of those appalled by our deportation practices would favor open borders. Maybe a minority. But then again, the early protests against slavery were often about slave-owners’ abusive treatment of slaves and not slavery per se. Concerned Christians or other humanitarians often pushed to ensure that masters be discouraged from cruelty, but not to end slavery entirely. After all, slavery had been around as long as anyone knew and contemplating its abolition struck many as foolhardy and thus pointless. And yet, as time wore on it became clear that as unlikely a world without slavery might seem, even more unlikely was that the institution might survive absent its loathsome abuses.

Of course some on the left might actively embrace the nation-state’s territorial sovereignty, seeing this as the last bastion for democrats to stand against the tyranny of neoliberalism’s global markets and a world of homo economicus. Such arguments of sentiment resonate with themes from Cannibals, All: Slaves Without Masters!, the 1857 pro-slavery tome by George Fitzhugh. Evoking the insecurity of the labor market in the North, he described the benevolent paternalism of masters toward their slaves and wrote, “Free laborers have not a thousandth part of the rights and liberties of negro slaves. Indeed, they have not a single right or a single liberty, unless it be the right or liberty to die.” The book is a defense of marriage, the nation-state, tradition in general, and slavery in particular. There is as much logic in his arguments against divorce, for slavery, and against atheism as there is in his and others’ defense of loyalties and the ties of nationalism.

Even amid the steady increases in the numbers of U.S. residents being arrested and deported, one can discern in the pattern of resistance to these trends an ineluctable progressive bent. The ratchet of humanity afforded different peoples and the protections of the rule of law over the long run generally if painfully slowly goes one way. This is an assertion with which I am aware many will disagree, and not without good cause. This is not without exception and certainly not without ongoing struggle, but the nativists who oppose half-measures are right in one respect. It seems hard to imagine that when the president responds to high school and college students by granting them quasi- or even pseudo-protection (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals means a deferral on removal, not its revocation), and when the state of Illinois grants drivers’ licenses to undocumented people (even licenses that are stigmatizing and second-class or worse), and when the governor of Michigan approves state drivers’ licenses for those who have received deferred action status, that this will not further integrate undocumented residents into civic life and make it more difficult to contemplate their arrests and removals.

A Midwestern City Leads the Way

Ultimately, it is probably not capitalism but forces of commerce and adventure that long predate it that will lead to the abolition of restrictions on movement across national borders and eventually the demise of the nation altogether. For centuries parishes prohibited residence to fellow English subjects who had been born elsewhere, and the penalties for being caught in such a situation without a pass were, depending on if one were a repeat offender, imprisonment, branding, the loss of an ear, or, in the 1730s, “transportation” to the colony of Georgia. The fear was that rural poor would flood the cities and lead to chaos, not unlike fears of free movement across national borders today.

Of course today no one born in Ewell and found working in London will be deported to Georgia. You only need a toll or rail pass to go from New Jersey into New York, and a policy to the contrary would be deemed as laughable now as will similar restrictions on movement across national borders seem a few hundred years hence.

Indeed the city of Dayton, Ohio, is not waiting. In 2011 the city issued its Welcome Dayton report, a thirty-two-page document explaining why it is encouraging immigrants to settle there regardless of their legal status, even if they are not rich or computer engineers. While many cities and federal policies have targeted high-skilled immigrants for legal privileges, Dayton officials understand that an Indian professional, for instance, is more likely to desire to settle in a city that is diverse and encourages Indian grocers, music stores, and restaurants than in a city without these, regardless of the proprietors’ legal status; and it knows that the prosperity of these communities will be good for the entire city.

The opening pages of the report states:

The U.S. has a checkered history of welcoming and rejecting new people. The complaints heard historically are, “They will take our jobs,” “they don’t want to learn English,” “they won’t integrate into our culture,” and similar statements are heard today about immigrants. However, our history also shows that, given time and respect, acceptance and assimilation is generally, if not universally, the norm. The question then is, will we learn from history, i.e. repeat the criticisms and resistance, or provide the welcome to our newest residents? We are asking this community to implement the Welcome Dayton plan now so we can receive the gifts inherent in all of us today, rather than wait generations before individual and community dreams can be fulfilled.

In 1860, it would have been difficult for Rep. Carrie Meek’s grandparents to imagine not only that they would soon be citizens, but also that their granddaughter and great-grandson would eventually be members of Congress. Dayton seems to have arrived back from the future, and the requests it’s making of its citizens are fine ones for us to be asking of our country as well.