Mason students, faculty, and alumni visit the Senate Chamber of the Virginia State Capitol during Mason Lobby Day in Richmond. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University

Repeating History: How Texas’ SB 4 Mirrors the Fugitive Slave Act

As Senate Bill 4 comes into law, its similarities to another infamously racist piece of legislation are hard to ignore.
August 30, 2017
8 mins read

Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), which becomes law in a few days, on September 1, will be the cornerstone legislation in President Trump’s immigration policy reform. In response to the bill, many Texas cities and several public universities have attempted to establish “sanctuary” status, which can mean different things depending on who you ask, but generally aims to protect undocumented immigrants from overreaching federal immigration enforcement.

These institutions seeking to protect their own from unwarranted deportation have gone so far as to bring a collective lawsuit against the state, and while the legislation certainly has other local governments across the country watching how the conflict plays out, SB 4 is not the first policy of its kind.

Arizona’s “show me your papers” bill, SB 1070, became state law in 2010. Though SB 1070 was found to violate the U.S. Constitution, Alabama’s HB 56, another bill granting police the right to inquire about immigration status during a traffic stop or arrest, was signed into law in 2011. While SB 4 may seem like nothing more than a Texan iteration of these state bills, its legislative and philosophical forbearers date back far further.

The Fugitive Slave Act (FSA) of 1850, the second and final conception of the Fugitive Slave laws, was designed to reinforce the significantly weakened 1793 version of the bill. Both laws granted legal backing to any law enforcement agent attempting to return escaped slaves to their slave masters.

The law was one of the federal government’s last attempts to prolong and legitimize slavery as a legal institution, but the immediate backlash to the bill and the Emancipation Proclamation that would follow not two decades later eventually led to the law’s nullification just before the end of the Civil War.

Both the FSA and SB 4 laws call for the identifying and subsequent removal of a group of people on behalf of the federal government. The parallels between the Fugitive Slave Acts and these immigration laws are not coincidental; in fact, the text of SB 4 seems almost plagiarized from the FSA.

“A person who is a sheriff, chief of police, or a constable or a person who otherwise has primary authority for administering a jail counts an offense if the person: knowingly fails to comply with the detainment request,” section 39.07 of SB 4 reads. And in the FSA: “It shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act,” section 5 of the act reads. A first-time violation for both is a fine of $1,000.

Though the laws’ texts are uncomfortably similar, their wording is not the issue, it’s the motivation behind their creation. Take Texas governor Greg Abbott’s infamous tweet in retaliation to Texas universities trying to establish “sanctuary” status, for example, in which he promises to cut funding to state institutions that dare to identify as sanctuary organizations.

Abbott alone can’t cut funding to universities, but the claim shows his disregard for the overwhelming disapproval of SB 4. On the same note, universities can’t legally sidestep immigration policies designated by the state they’re established in, but petitioning for sanctuary status was always considered to be a more symbolic act than a practical one.

Those who support SB 4 are opting to release the government of its responsibility to care for a group of people by making their removal easier. Those who oppose the law are questioning a policy that criminalizes people who otherwise have not broken the law. The argument, then, isn’t based on specifics of the law; it’s a conflict between two different views on what’s right or wrong.

The generalization of undocumented immigrants as criminals turns the issue into an argument that doesn’t question the state’s motives for implementing a policy that’s been repeatedly found unconstitutional.

Just as the FSA was advocated as a crime deterrent, SB 4 is rationalized as a preventative measure, keeping criminals out of Texas cities. The state is portraying itself as a protector. By reinstating these blatantly prejudiced policies, Texas’ government is aligning itself with a federal government bent on imposing the repetition of America’s darkest history.

I claim this as a spectator. My university, UTSA, petitioned for sanctuary status last year. It became a microcosm of the several Texas cities attempting to keep their sanctuary status.

When Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law, UTSA transformed from a microcosm into an entity actively working against the state’s policy. Several campus groups protested the bill, alongside San Antonio officials and residents, both on campus and in symbolic locations throughout the city.

I remember when students protested in front of U.S. Border Patrol agents tabling on campus. The agents were apparently boasting their enforcement tactics to passersby, which pissed off several students. San Antonio is an extremely diverse city, but Mexican culture is most closely associated with the city’s identity. So, I don’t blame its citizens for being protective of its immigrant population.

These incidents brought to mind the experiences of a friend of mine who immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler. While in restaurants, waiting in line at a convenience store or walking around the mall together, he often overheard disgusting comments about undocumented immigrants, specifically those from Mexico, as he is.

He told me he had learned to bite his tongue and walk on. As similar incidents continued to happen to him, they helped him realize just how deep prejudice in the U.S ran.

Knowing the scope of racism’s prevalence in the United States is necessary to opposing bills like SB 4. Having a general knowledge of American history and being up to date on politics is also integral to resisting oppression, as, rather than assert the immorality of SB 4, a more cogent argument would hold that similar policies have been implemented in America, and that their failure to work then suggests that they will be unlikely to succeed now.

If SB 4 meets the same fates as SB 1070 and HB 56, then the Fugitive Slave Acts, and the immediate backlash that eventually destroyed them, will be prophetic. For once, then, I find myself hoping that this bit of history does repeat itself.

Editor’s note: Since the posting of this article, federal court has temporarily blocked SB 4.

Gaige Davila, UTSA

Writer Profile

Gaige Davila

English & Political Science

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