On Tuesday, when I stepped into the voting booth, I thought of all those who have walked in the hopes of attaining the freedom that America promised.
I thought of enslaved Africans who walked through the thickets and swamps of the South, eluding dogs, slave catchers, and lynch mobs in their quest for liberty.
It was illegal for those enslaved people to walk away from a brutal system that treated them like animals. Yet they understood, even in their forced illiteracy, that an unjust law is no law at all. That's why, as I watch thousands of Central American migrants walk thousands of miles in search of the same elusive freedom my ancestors sought, I see parallels between the past and the present, between the enslaved and the migrant, between the black and the brown.
Those parallels have shaped my view of the migrants' journey, and it has informed my perception of the way they've been portrayed. When I watch President Trump, a self-described nationalist, try to frighten the American electorate by depicting thousands of impoverished Latino migrants fleeing violence and oppression as "bad people" and "tough, tough people," I am sickened.
That's because the demonization of a group walking north to escape brutality and abject poverty is a familiar refrain in American politics. Just as Trump and his political allies have used brown immigrants as a wedge to divide Americans in the hopes of maintaining GOP control of the government, Trump's political forebears sought to use slavery as a wedge to maintain their own "way of life."
That's why, when Trump released a campaign ad that portrayed the migrants as savage criminals who needed to be dominated and controlled, I was taken back to the antebellum South, where such leaders as South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun sought to justify their racism with similar assessments of blacks.
"We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions," Calhoun said in a speech in 1837 in which he extolled the virtues of slavery. "To maintain the existing relations between the two races inhabiting that section of the Union is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, it has grown up with our society and institutions and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races, in the slaveholding states, is an evil. Far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be, to both, and will continue to prove so, if not disturbed by the fell spirit of Abolition."
Were it not for the flowery language, I would think that the speech was given today. Just as Calhoun, a self-described nationalist, predicted and even encouraged bloodshed if slavery was abolished, Trump continually paints brown immigrants as an existential threat to America.
I'm not buying it.
We are a country of immigrants. As the son, grandson, and husband of immigrants, Trump knows this well.
African Americans walked north to escape the systematic oppression of slavery; the migrants of Central America are walking north to escape the violence and poverty of their home countries.
If they are willing to present their case and seek asylum at our border, we must allow them to do so. Because repeating the mistakes of the past — when America sought to maintain slavery by changing such laws as the Fugitive Slave Act — can only yield the same disastrous results.
Let the migrants walk to freedom, just as my people walked out of the chains that once bound them.