Immigration Law and Slavery: Rethinking the Migration or Importation Clause
56 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2023 Last revised: 20 Mar 2023
Date Written: March 5, 2023
The traditional account of the origins of federal immigration law mostly glosses over its deep connection to slavery. An examination of that connection calls the constitutional foundation for immigration law into question, alters the calculus for judicial review of federal immigration action, reframes our understanding of federalism, and lays bare the nation’s exploitative dependence on immigrant labor. This article makes this paradigm shift by focusing on a long-neglected textual reference to a federal immigration power: the Migration or Importation Clause of Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the Constitution. Scholars have almost uniformly discounted the Migration or Importation Clause as relating to federal immigration power because of its connection to slavery. In sharp contrast, this article contends that the Migration or Importation Clause makes sense as a referent of the federal immigration power because of its connection to slavery, which was deeply intertwined in the early Republic with immigration.
The history of the Constitutional Convention reveals that the framers specifically discussed slavery and immigration together and were aware that their chosen wording for the Migration or Importation Clause would apply to free immigrants. An originalist understanding of the Clause therefore supports a federal immigration power under the Commerce Clause, which was the presumptive basis for regulating the slave trade after the 1808 date set out in the Migration or Importation Clause.
The legacy of the Migration or Importation Clause continues to be felt in immigration law. Slavery was an atrocity that inflicted intergenerational harm on blacks; in contrast, immigrants have often enjoyed opportunities and passed on wealth. Nonetheless, the current structure of immigration law perpetuates nineteenth century labor norms for the millions of undocumented workers who under threat of deportation do much of the nation’s most difficult work for lower pay and with fewer legal protections than documented workers. Reckoning with the ties between immigration law and slavery offers an opportunity to reflect on the failures of this system, and also reveals a redemptive path forward. In the face of an exploitative system, the strategies and logic of abolitionism offer hope for a better immigration future.
Keywords: Immigration, Slavery, Immigration Law, Race, Migration, Migration or Importation Clause, Slave Trade, Commerce Clause, Abolition, Abolitionism, Undocumented,
JEL Classification: J15
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation