Hunting Fugitives, Then and Now


In 1851, Bostonians whose “crime” was escaping slavery were warned to avoid local police.  The president now wants local police to capture people whose only “crime” is BWF (Breathing While Foreign).  Déjà vu?

Joey here.

The 1787 U.S. Constitution didn’t mention slavery.  Not outright.

One must read between the lines.

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 (substituting “Slavery” for the original “Service or Labour”):

No Person held to [Slavery] in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such [Slavery], but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such [Slavery] may be due.”

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act decreed severe punishment – fines ($30,000 in today’s dollars), payment of restitution, and imprisonment – for Americans who did not deliver escaped slaves to their masters.

Today we are disgusted by the people who obeyed the law (and the Constitution) and returned slaves to slavery.

We honor people like Harriet Tubman and Luther Lee who defied the law.  Good people hid and harbored escaped slaves.  They pushed back against the Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling (1857) that no one of African ancestry could be an American citizen.  They were part of the Underground Railroad, transporting people to freedom in Canada.


The image of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped dozens more slaves reach freedom in Canada, will appear on a new U.S. $20 bill.


From The Autobiography of Rev. Luther Lee (1882), pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, NY:  “I never had obeyed [the Fugitive Slave Act]—I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the United States authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga-street. I would admit that they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough in Onondaga County to level it with the ground before the next morning.”

Jeffrey has defended refugees from countries where slavery still exists.  His clients suffered from physical and psychological atrocities as horrifying as what American slaves endured.  So forgive us if we see parallels between America’s slaves and their descendants – who were deprived of citizenship until after the Civil War, deprived of human rights for 100 years after that, and still suffer the effects of this persecution – and today’s refugees and other desperate migrants.

We ask ourselves:  In 1850s America, would we have hunted down fugitive slaves?  In 1930s America, would we have rejected refugees fleeing the Nazis?  In 1940s Europe, would we have ignored or betrayed innocent Jews and others whom the law declared were enemies?

We hadn’t thought that Americans would be faced with such questions in our own era.  The application of our immigration, refugee and asylum laws, in fits and starts, has tended to become more humane since 1980 . . .


Jeffrey created this clipart montage to evoke a government (!) poster he recalls from (perhaps) the second Bush administration, showing the American eagle sheltering refugees.

. . . until now.

The new president has tried to bar refugees from the United States.  That is illegal and immoral.

He has ordered the arrest and expulsion of millions of our neighbors, friends and families.  That is legal and immoral – like the Fugitive Slave Act.

We will not turn our backs on the new slaves, the new Jews, the new refugees.

We denounce presidential orders that lie about refugees, that slander and ban refugees as mysterious and dangerous.

We will not cooperate with those who hunt down peaceful members of our community, to take them from the people they work with, worship with, do business with, and love.

Since years before I joined Jeffrey and Nancy in 1991, they and their children have housed and transported and fed and supported refugees from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  They do it because . . .


. . . Jeffrey’s and Nancy’s people were refugees . . .


. . . the Bible says to welcome and protect the stranger, to treat the stranger the same as the citizen, to love the stranger . . .

. . . if they didn’t help, they’d be ashamed . . . and because they are Americans.

Let’s say NO to enforcement of the modern version of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Let’s fight it, however we can.

To start, let’s stop the slurs against people who exercise their moral and legal right to come to the U.S. and ask for refuge.  Let’s stop the slurs against unauthorized immigrants who have settled here.  Let’s gently explain the destructive power of careless language, to friends and neighbors who are cruel without realizing it.

Listen to Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor, the late Elie Wiesel:

“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal.  That is a contradiction in terms.  Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal?  How can a human being be illegal? … [O]nce you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.  You do not label a people ‘illegal.’  They have committed an illegal act.  They are immigrants who crossed illegally.  They are immigrants who crossed without papers.  They are immigrants who crossed without permission.  They are living in this country without permission.  But they are not an illegal people.”

And let’s band together, through groups like Human Rights First . . .


. . . to stop the president from reinstating torture; to stop the villification of women, Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, Jews, immigrants, Democrats, Syrians, the LGBTQ, the press, and others, who do not conform to a ruler’s idea of the “norm”; to stop refugee bans that violate our laws and morals; to stop seizing and deporting people whose “crime” is living and working and caring for family; to stop propaganda that encourages the misinformed to bully our neighbors.

Let’s put Human Rights FIRST.

Javert or Valjean? Which Side Are You On?


Joey Valjoey, clad in a sack, feeds stolen bread to a starving youth. The penalty for bread theft can be eternal banishment from the U.S.  The same crime put Jean Valjean in a French prison.  But Valjean was not banished from France.

First, a reminder:

As every year since we planned the first Ride in 2011, we post occasional essays in the weeks before our departure.  This year, we will leave NYC on April 18.  Once we are on the road, we will post every night so you can share the adventure.

*     *     *

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean went to prison for stealing bread to feed a starving child.

A boy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath risked jail too: “Last night I went an’ busted a winda an’ stoled some bread. Made [my pa] chew ‘er down. But he puked it all up, an’ then he was weaker. . . . He’s starvin’ to death, I tell you!”

These fictional characters reflected real life in an 1830s French monarchy, and during the 1930s Great American Depression.  People were severely punished for committing minor crimes even to save a life.  It had been worse.  In Merrie Olde England, stealing bread was punishable by death.

Modern criminal penalties are, for the most part, more proportional.  And most crimes have an expiry date.

Here’s how to get away with armed robbery in (for example) hang-’em-high law-‘n’-order Texas.

Load your gun, rob your victim (you may pistol-whip her, just don’t kill her), stay in Texas, and don’t get indicted.  After 5 years, you’re untouchable.

Not only Texas forgives and forgets.  For most crimes, American law has statutes of limitations.  The state recognizes problems of proof and of justice.  It declines to pursue or punish perps of long-ago crimes.

For American criminals, there’s another way out.  Juries (and to a lesser extent, judges) have discretion in verdicts and sentencing.  Like any discretionary power, it can be abused.  Yet when the letter of the law is unjust – as when a trespasser seeks shelter from a storm, or an abused spouse clubs her abuser, or a starving person steals a loaf of bread – discretion can set things right.

And who among us has not exceeded the speed limit, cut across someone else’s land, or violated some aspect of the Internal Revenue Code?  In NYC, letting your dog pee on a sidewalk can get you a $25 fine and 10 days in jail; how often is that enforced?  States and cities have tax amnesties: tax cheats pay up, sometimes at a discount, and all is forgiven.  The driver who shattered Jeffrey’s leg in 2014 was not issued a ticket, despite her lawyer conceding that she was 100% at fault.  Amnesties and discretionary enforcement let citizens get away with stuff.

For noncitizens, it’s different.  Immigration law rarely forgives and never forgets.  Something you did decades ago, even if a new law made it a “deportable offense” after the fact, can get you banished from the United States.

Uninformed people say, “The law is the law.  Foreigners are here illegally.  Get rid of them!”


These laypersons – including the president, who shows no knowledge of the law and does not vet his remarks with knowledgeable people – speak without understanding our complex immigration system.  Most immigration violations are civil, not criminal.  Many people facing removal from this country would qualify to stay if they get their day in court.  Federal agents have arrested, jailed, and even deported U.S. citizens.  On our first Ride in 2011, we ourselves met a U.S. citizen who had been jailed illegally by immigration cops.

What happened to common-sense fairness?  A person who lives and works here, supports her children, participates in the economy as producer and consumer, pays taxes that enrich the commonwealth, joins religious and civic groups that help the community, becomes one of us . . . at some point, justice demands that we recognize that America is her home.

Years ago, an immigration judge – a refugee who became a U.S. citizen – told Jeffrey that we need careful border controls, but that after someone has lived here and become part of our society, we owe that person compassion.

The judge was right.  All laws, criminal and civil, Biblical and Constitutional, require interpretation.  Law making, interpretation, and enforcement, are human enterprises.  Immigrants are human.  Are they not entitled to humane treatment, in light of all the circumstances?

We say yes.  We say that immigration law must be changed to reflect our universal moral values.  Temper justice with mercy.  Make the punishment fit the offense.  Don’t criminalize normal constructive human behavior.

Until then, common-sense discretion should temper enforcement.  There is no excuse for cruelty to individuals, families, communities.

Consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1, line 196


Say it ain’t so, Joey! (With a nod to the 1919 Black Sox scandal)

Afraid of . . . Nothing.


Joey, in a borrowed University of Chicago doctoral cap, holds § 101 of the Refugee Act of 1980.  Background:  Erté’s 1978 serigraph, Wings of Victory.

[To honor George Washington’s 285th birthday, today: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” December 2, 1783]

The current president of the United States campaigned on a promise to effect a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  Now he is trying to deter some refugees (many fleeing persecution in Central America), and to ban other refugees (many fleeing persecution in the Middle East), from entering the United States.

(“Refugees” are people found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on particular grounds, who undergo months or years of background checks before they are allowed to come to the U.S.  “Asylees” are people recognized as refugees after having come to the U.S.; they undergo extensive background checks too.)

We don’t know “what is going on” in the president’s imagination. We do know the law and the facts.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101, begins (emphasis added):

The Congress declares that it is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, . . . aid for necessary transportation and processing, admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concerns to the United States, and transitional assistance to refugees in the United States. . . .  The objectives of this Act are to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.

Our law says foreigners have the right to ask for refuge, outside our country, at the border, or from within.  It says we respond.  We hear them.  We adjudicate.  We admit.  We resettle.  We absorb.  And we set aside money to pay for it.  That’s the American way!

Let’s keep things in perspective.  Eight hundred thousand refugees have been admitted to the United States since the 9/11 attack.  Americans killed by refugee terrorists:  zero.  Depending on how you slice the numbers, American deaths from terror attacks worldwide since 9/11: under 400.  American deaths from U.S. gun violence since 9/11: almost 400,000.

The president seeks to ban immigrants, workers, visitors, and refugees from seven countries, regardless of vetting:


(Curiously, he did not single out the home countries of the 9/11 terrorists: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon.)

You already know that citizens of those seven countries have not committed any terrorist murders in the U.S., and that everyone coming from those countries is carefully screened.  “Extreme vetting” has been law and practice for years; it has kept us safe; yet the president insists, without evidence, that it is not enough.

“An example is not a proof.”  But here’s our perspective on the people we know from four of those seven “pariah” countries.

Among his hundreds of clients in 34 years of asylum work, Jeffrey has represented victims of persecution from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.  All exercised their legal right to come to the United States and ask for asylum.  While their cases were pending, sometimes after their release from immigration “detention” (jail), refugees from each of these countries were guests of Jeffrey’s family.  His home was their home.

There was risk on both sides.  The refugees feared that an American lawyer’s hospitality came at a price.  (Nope.)  Jeffrey and Nancy knew it was possible for these strangers to hurt them and their young children.  (The guests would be horrified to know that the thought even crossed Jeffrey’s mind.)

Act or fail to act.  Be kind or be cruel.  Stand tall or crouch in fear.  No matter what one does, or does not, there is risk.

We believe in American exceptionalism.  Rich America is big and strong and good enough to welcome the oppressed.  A small fraction of refugees will turn out to be bad people, just as a small (but larger) fraction of American babies grow up to be bad.  So what?  That’s life.  We’ll take the risk.

Common sense, based on reality (not posturing), demands that we be prudent.  Our laws, and the Bible most of us claim to respect, demand that we be generous.

We insist that the government that speaks in our name, be both.


For those who forgot what America stands for, this caption was briefly on display on February 21, 2017.