Stanley Harrold: Illegal Immigrants, before the Civil War and Now

Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War, by Stanley Harrold
[This article is crossposted at]

We welcome a guest post today from Stanley Harrold, author of Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War, which is now available in a new paperback edition. During the 1840s and 1850s, a dangerous ferment afflicted the North-South border region, pitting the slave states of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri against the free states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Aspects of this struggle—the underground railroad, enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, mob actions, and sectional politics—are well known as parts of other stories. In Border War, Harrold explores the border struggle itself, the dramatic incidents that it comprised, and its role in the complex dynamics leading to the Civil War.

In the following guest post, Harrold reveals similarities in the struggles over legal status of enslaved people seeking freedom in the mid-1800s and some immigrants to the U.S. today.


Slave escapes from the South to the North and Canada happened frequently during the decades prior to the Civil War. Such escapes had a major role in causing the war. From the 1830s through the 1850s, people (North and South, black and white) called the escapees fugitive slaves or runaway slaves. Of the two terms, I prefer the former. Runaway seems demeaning. It suggests triviality or that the slaves deserted masters who deserved loyalty. Some who study the slave escape networks known collectively as the underground railroad go further. They object to using the term slaves and prefer enslaved people. They call slaves who left their masters to head north freedom seekers.

During the pre-Civil War decades, people did not use the term freedom seekers. The closest that I have found in antebellum sources is freedom-hunters. Radical antislavery journalist Joshua Leavitt of Boston used this term in 1841, as he contrasted the escapees with slave-hunters who sought to capture and re-enslave them. What is important for both freedom seekers and freedom-hunters is their emphasis on slave action in gaining freedom. By escaping north, they forced the slavery issue on the nation.

Illegal immigrant, like freedom seeker, is a term that did not exist in the Civil War era. Yet, better than freedom seeker, when applied to fugitive slaves, illegal immigrant facilitates understanding of the relationship between the pre–Civil War black struggle for freedom and the current struggle over the status of many Hispanic immigrants to this country.

Fugitive slaves were the illegal immigrants of their time, despite the fact that the U.S. did not restrict foreign immigration until 1875. Even though native-born Americans harbored widespread intense prejudice against the foreign born, immigrants from Europe came freely to American shores. Meanwhile Congress, through the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and the harsher Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, acted against northward migration of enslaved black people from the South. Those apprehended under these laws could be forcibly returned south to their masters. This amounted to a system of anti-immigrant vigilance strikingly similar to the system in force today. The pre–Civil War system aimed to keep African Americans out of the North. The current system aims to keep unskilled workers, from Mexico, Central America, and Latin America generally, out of the U.S. Those caught illegally in the U.S. may be sent south to their homeland.

Today illegal Hispanic immigrants provide cheap agricultural, industrial, and domestic labor in the U.S. Before the Civil War, black migrants from the South provided cheap farm and domestic labor in the North. A desire for better working conditions, better pay, and increased freedom motivates today’s migrants from Latin America. Fugitive slaves had similar motives. And, just as employers today ignore or circumvent immigration laws, white northern employers disobeyed the Fugitive Slave Laws. Those who employed black illegals before the Civil War sought to save money. Employers of Hispanic illegals today do as well.

Hispanic immigrants, and those who help them, clandestinely cross the U.S.-Mexican border and head north. Fugitive slaves, and those who helped them, developed similar skills to cross the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River. There are also parallels between safe-houses for Hispanic migrants today and Antebellum America’s underground railroad stations. But employers’ economic interests are key to understanding why Fugitive Slave Laws then and immigration laws now are difficult to enforce. Today employers shield illegal immigrants and lobby against restrictions on hiring them. Before the Civil War, black and white northern farmers and homeowners resisted an anti-immigration program that, as is the case today, relied on law enforcement agents. Prior to 1850 local justices of the peace and constables had jurisdiction. After that year U.S. Marshalls took over. Today state police and the U.S. Border Patrol have similar roles. In some cases today there is violence. Similarly on occasion before the Civil War, northerners who employed fugitive slaves confronted law enforcement agents or provided fugitive slaves with guns to defend themselves.

Just as today’s illegal immigrants have to be self-reliant, so did fugitive slaves. Just as illegal immigrants today face a variety of legal and societal forms of discrimination, fugitive slaves and their children did as well. Beyond receiving low pay for their work, they (like illegal immigrants today) faced deportation if discovered. As is the case today for illegal immigrants, fugitive slaves could not easily establish legal residency for themselves or admission to school for their children.

Yet there is a crucial difference between the political situation antebellum America’s “illegals” faced and what today’s immigrants face. Powerful pre–Civil War southerners demanded return of their fugitive slaves. This demand produced the Fugitive Slave Laws and enforcement of them. In contrast, today’s illegal immigrants flee unemployment and poverty rather than masters and slavery. No one in their home countries demands that the U.S. send them back. This difference suggests that today’s illegal immigrants will more easily achieve citizenship than did American slaves.

Stanley Harrold is professor of history at South Carolina State University and author of numerous books on the antislavery movement and the Civil War era, including Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War.