When laws outlaw liberty

July 6, 2010

Brian Lenzo catalogs the long list of unjust laws from the history of the "land of the free."

"WE ARE a nation of laws," the supporters of Arizona's SB 1070 law say. Many in the "get tough on illegal immigration" crowd point to the fact that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law by not entering the U.S. "through the proper channels."

The underlying point of the "nation of laws" argument is that it would be wrong or immoral to break these laws. However, the absurdity of this is all around us. Many of our national heroes--like Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--all broke laws in the struggle for dignity and justice.

In fact, the group most vocal about enforcing our immigration laws--the so-called Tea Partiers--got its name from an event that defied an unjust law.

In 1773, a group of colonists in Boston boarded three English merchant ships and dumped the tea they carried into the harbor--the so-called "Boston Tea Party."

This was certainly an illegal act. However, the protest was about opposing a series of laws that the colonists felt were unjust. The excise taxes on tea and other goods imposed by the British state on its 13 North American colonies were a tremendous burden on small merchants. Furthermore, the colonists had no legal pathway to challenge the laws, as they were denied representation in the English government.

Orders for Japanese-Americans to report for internment during the Second World War
Orders for Japanese-Americans to report for internment during the Second World War

This sentiment was embodied in a slogan you can find on many Tea Party bumper stickers today: "No Taxation Without Representation." It had quite a different political meaning back then than it does now.

The U.S. does indeed have laws--thousands of them. However, these laws are not made by gods or wizards. They are made by human beings.

Throughout U.S. history, the men who made the laws (still to this day, they are almost exclusively men) reflected the dominant prejudices of their day, passing laws that became the infrastructure for slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

HERE IS just a short list of unjust laws from our nation's sordid history:

Naturalization Act of 1790: Refused the granting of national citizenship to indentured servants, slaves, free Blacks and later Asians.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793: Made it a crime to escape slavery and/or to harbor fugitive slaves.

Alien Enemies Act (1798): Authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the U.S. Enacted July 6, 1798, and providing no sunset provision, the act remains intact today.

Sedition Act (1798): Made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the government or its officials.

Indian Removal Act (1830): Legalized deportation of Native Americans to the West, a policy known as "Indian removal."

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: Mandated harsher penalties for slaves and those helping slaves escape.

Article 13 of Indiana's 1851 constitution: Stated "No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the state, after the adoption of this constitution."

Illinois' Black Code of 1853: Extended a complete prohibition against Black emigration into the state.

Page Act of 1875: Classified as "undesirable" anyone from China who came to the U.S. as a contract laborer, any Asian woman to engage in prostitution and all people considered to be convicts in their native country.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): Extended provisions of the Page Act and mandated harsher restrictions on Chinese immigration.

Geary Act (1892): Expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act. One provision required all Chinese residents of the United States to carry a resident permit. Failure to carry the permit at all times was punishable by deportation or a year of hard labor. In addition, Chinese weren't allowed to be witnesses in court and couldn't get bail in habeas corpus proceedings.

Espionage Act of 1917: Made it a crime to interfere with operations of the U.S. military, provide support for U.S. enemies during wartime, promote insubordination in the military or interfere with military recruitment.

Immigration Act of 1917: Created an "Asiatic Barred Zone" that included much of eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands, from which people could not immigrate. According to one account:

This act added to the number of undesirables banned from entering the country, including but not limited to "idiots," "feeble-minded persons," "criminals," "epileptics," "insane persons," alcoholics, "professional beggars," all persons "mentally or physically defective," polygamists, and anarchists. Furthermore, it barred all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate.

Sedition Act of 1918: Extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, notably any speech or expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds.

National Origins Act (1924): Restricted the number of Southern and Eastern Europeans who could enter the U.S.

Asian Exclusion Act (1924): Barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific Triangle, which included Japan, China, the Philippines (then under U.S. control), Laos, Siam (Thailand), Cambodia, Singapore (then a British colony), Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar), India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaysia.

National Housing Act of 1934: A New Deal law designed to make housing and mortgages more affordable that had the effect of making redlining official policy. In 239 cities, "residential security maps" were created to indicate the level of security for real estate investments. In these maps, many minority neighborhoods in cities were not eligible to receive loans at all. This meant that ethnic minorities could secure mortgage loans only in certain areas, which resulted in an increase in residential racial segregation.

THIS LIST is far from complete--and it doesn't include the many other ways that all three branches of the U.S. government have carried out discriminatory and unjust policies. Consider this short list of Supreme Court decisions:

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): Determined that people of African descent--including those brought to the U.S. and held as slaves, as well as their descendents, whether they were free or not--could never be citizens of the U.S.

Pace v. Alabama (1883): Upheld the constitutionality of anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial sex and marriage. From 1913 to 1948, 30 of the then 48 states had laws against "miscegenation" preventing sexual contact and marriage between races. This precedent wasn't overturned until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): Established the "separate but equal" interpretation of the Constitution that backed up Jim Crow racial segregation.

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923): Officially classified Indians as non-white, which retroactively stripped Indians of citizenship and land rights. No ensuing case overturned this precedent, so this classification remains formally, if not in practice.

Federal authorities have carried out appalling actions against citizens and non-citizens alike, claiming support in the law as justification:

The Palmer Raids (1919-20): A series of police raids and mass arrests carried out between November 1919 and January 1920 under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

Implemented by then 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover--who instructed that political prisoners be "forcefully interrogated without legal counsel, and that they remain imprisoned via prohibitively high bail"--the raids led to the arrests of thousands on suspicion of espionage. Many of the victims were detained simply for having Russian names. More than 500 foreign citizens were deported, including a number of prominent leftist leaders.

The Mexican Repatriation (1929-39): A forced migration between 1929 and 1939, when as many as 1 million people of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the U.S. Carried out by Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities, there were no mechanisms for due process.

Executive Order 9066 (1942): An order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt that paved the way for internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent (American citizens as well as Japanese nationals) were interned during the war. Americans of Italian and German descent, along with Italian and German nationals, were also interned, but on a much smaller scale.

The McCarthy Witch-hunts (1950s): A campaign against socialists, unionists and dissidents of all sorts, carried out by politicians of both mainstream parties. Congressional committees led by the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin conducted public character investigations of "American communists" (actual and alleged), for their alleged roles in espionage, propaganda and subversion favoring the USSR.

The resulting hysteria saw the creation of "black lists" denying hundreds of thousands of people employment and financial opportunities, and culminated with the execution of Communist Party members Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. The process also launched the successful political career of Richard Nixon as well as that of Robert F. Kennedy.

Operation Wetback (1954): An operation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to remove about 1 million illegal immigrants from the southwestern United States, focusing on Mexican nationals. Tactics employed included systematic police sweeps of Mexican-American neighborhoods, and random stops and ID checks of "Mexican-looking" people. In some cases, illegal immigrants were deported along with their American-born minor dependent children.

The Chandler Roundup (1997): In late July, 432 illegal immigrants were arrested and deported. Police officers fanned out across Chandler, a Phoenix suburb, searching for illegal immigrants. Working side by side with Border Patrol agents, police demanded proof of citizenship from children walking home from school, grandmothers shopping at stores and employees driving to work. Local police and federal officers also detained dozens of U.S. citizens and legal residents--often stopping them because they spoke Spanish or "looked" Mexican.

AND TODAY, we have Arizona's SB 1070, called the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act."

This law makes it a state misdemeanor crime for an "alien" to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents required by federal law, authorizes state and local law enforcement officials to impose federal immigration laws and cracks down on anyone who shelters, hires or transports undocumented people.

Under SB 1070, anyone, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, who tries to hire someone out of a vehicle and "blocks or impedes the normal movement of traffic" can be charged--the penalties also apply to those who are seeking work.

This law, like all the other unjust laws through U.S. history, reveals the fact that rather than representing a "universal good," the American government and its laws reflect the morals and interests of the wealthy, the financiers, the military generals and the captains of industry.

Unjust laws should be fought. And if lawmakers refuse to change them, those unjust laws deserve to be broken.

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