The Volokh Conspiracy

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Slaves as immigrants, from Ben Carson and the academy [UPDATE: and President Obama]


Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. (Zach Gibson/Associated Press)

[UPDATE: See below for slaves-as-immigrants quotes from President Obama, reported by The Blaze.]

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson's including slaves in the category of immigrants has caused controversy today:

In what appears to be an embarrassing pattern of mis-steps on race for the Trump administration, Carson told a room packed with hundreds of federal workers that the Africans captured, sold and transported to America against their will had the same hopes and dreams as early immigrants.

"That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less," said Carson, speaking extemporaneously as he paced the room with a microphone. "But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land."

It turns out, though, that slavery as immigration is a not uncommon characterization in academic discussions. To be sure, usually "immigrant" has the connotation of voluntary immigration; but there are also similarities between slaves and immigrants that scholars point out, often by using the term "immigrant" to refer to those who have come here from foreign countries, freely or not. Just a few examples:

[Lolita K. Buckner Inniss, "Tricky Magic: Blacks as Immigrants and the Paradox of Foreignness," 49 Depaul L. Rev. 85 (1999):]

A. Slavery as Immigration

Immigration has been defined as the moving across national frontiers, as opposed to moving within borders. Immigration has also been defined as a history of alienation and its consequences—"broken homes, interruptions of a familiar life, separation from known surroundings, the becoming a foreigner and ceasing to belong." These definitions have traditionally been applied to entrants from Europe and later, Asia. Blacks were often either explicitly or implicitly excluded from definitions of immigration, dismissed as being merely "imported slaves" whose movement lacked the complexity of later immigration to the Americas, or deemed unwilling victims of conquerors. Notwithstanding these pronouncements, black arrivals to the Americas had all the attributes of immigrants. In fact, they created the immigrant paradigm: arrivals with alien languages, cultures and customs, who enter at the bottom-most social and economic levels and labor tirelessly.

[Rhonda V. Magee, "Slavery as Immigration?," 44 U.S.F. L. Rev. 273 (2009):]

I have wondered whether a first generation "chattel slave" was also, in some sense, an immigrant? That is, might the involuntarily enslaved African, forcibly brought to the United States for condemnation to a life in chattel slavery, be more accurately considered a certain type of immigrant? And, if so, what are the implications of those revelations for understanding the origins and operations of U.S. immigration law? If transatlantic slavery was, in part, the earliest system for immigration in the United States, what legacies of that system should scholars of immigration law recognize, and what are the implications of that history for immigration law and policy today? That is to say, from the standpoint of immigration law, might the chattel slavery system be more accurately considered a compound institution system comprised of not only labor and sociocultural structures, but also a state-sponsored, pernicious system of immigration?

[Geoffrey Heeren, "Illegal Aid: Legal Assistance to Immigrants in the United States," 33 Cardozo L. Rev. 619 (2011):]

Slavery grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a more economical alternative to an earlier class of immigrant labor: white indentured servants imported from Britain. Arguably, slavery presents the best example of a hierarchical framework for immigrant rights: slaves were (involuntary) immigrants whose movement was strictly regulated according to their origin (African or domestic), legal status (slave, freedman, free born black), and each state's laws on the subject.

[Martin W. Burke, "Reexamining Immigration: Is It a Local or National Issue?," 84 Denv. U. L. Rev. 1075:]

Black Americans are not usually mentioned in a discussion about immigrants. However, it must be remembered that African slaves were an immigrant population that was forcefully brought to our shores and not allowed to assimilate into mainstream society.

It's pretty likely that these authors would disagree with Carson on much, and might well use their slaves-as-immigrants arguments for reasons very different from Carson's. But they share the basic point that those who arrived in slave ships had something (though of course not everything) in common with other new arrivals. Carson's point is that one of the things they shared in common was a need and a desire to build a better life for their children and grandchildren (a desire that might have been more acute than it was for non-immigrants). It's hardly a deep point, I think, but not one that seems to me to merit condemnation, especially as part of off-the-cuff remarks that weren't intended to constitute deep analysis. (Indeed, as the article I quoted notes, many in the audience seemed to take the remarks as unobjectionable.)

UPDATE: Tré Goins-Phillips (The Blaze) points to these quotes from President Obama; thanks to Prof. Adam Scales for the pointer:

[Remarks at a Naturalization Ceremony at the National Archives and Records Administration, December 15, 2015:]

So life in America was not always easy. It wasn't always easy for new immigrants. Certainly, it wasn't easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.

[Remarks by the President at Naturalization Ceremony, July 4, 2012:]

We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means—we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else—whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande.