As Mainers, we’ve inherited an honorable tradition of leadership on issues of great weight in American history, and our proudest moments of discernment and courage were our actions as a state in the face of slavery.

With pride we recall the heroism of the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg. In proportion to its population, Maine provided more soldiers and sailors than any other Union state in the fight to end slavery.

Although not as well known, the good people of Maine formed a key link in the Underground Railroad, hiding and transporting hundreds of escaped slaves to Canada and freedom.

In this struggle to acknowledge the basic human rights of all, the Maine Legislature, too, became involved.

In 1850, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which threatened state and local law enforcement officials who did not arrest alleged runaway slaves with fines and imprisonment; citizens aiding runaway slaves could be fined or imprisoned as well. In fact, all law enforcement officials were required to arrest a person suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.

Maine’s Legislature responded in 1852 by enacting “An Act to further protect personal liberty,” which prohibited judges of any court in the state from ruling in cases arising under the Fugitive Slave Law. It also said that “[n]o sheriff, deputy sheriff, coroner, constable, jailor, or other officer of this state, in his official capacity, shall hereafter arrest or detain, or aid in arresting or detaining … any person by reason of his being claimed a fugitive slave.” The penalties for violating this law were fines and imprisonment.

Maine simply forbade any state resources to be used in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.

We now find ourselves in times in which an assault on human dignity, eerily similar to that which our forebears confronted, is occurring in our land. We have people among us without documents who are not citizens and have no path to citizenship, like the slaves of earlier times. They cannot ask for a jury trial or testify on their own behalf, like the slaves of earlier times. They can be arrested and detained without a warrant like the slaves of earlier times.

And like the slaves of earlier times, they can be returned to the land they fled with no consideration of what awaits them there. They are every bit as human as the slaves our forebears fought to free.

Joshua Chamberlain calls out to us from the past to remind us that “the power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

So how will our Legislature respond to the current challenge?

Soon, the Legislature will vote on LD 366, “An Act to Ensure Compliance with Federal Immigration Laws by State and Local Government Entities.” This bill would remove all restrictions concerning the sharing and use of immigration and citizenship information and prohibit restricting of the enforcement of federal immigration laws. It would require full cooperation between state and federal law enforcement officials and require state officials to comply with an immigration detainer. This bill would require state officials to turn over any detained person thought to be an undocumented immigrant to federal law enforcement without requiring a proper warrant. The state’s law enforcement community would become mere appendages of federal immigration law.

This is a far cry from the response of the people of Maine and its Legislature to past affronts to human dignity, and it is repugnant to the memory of the noble deeds our forefathers sought to preserve and pass to the future.

And as the Fugitive Slave Law sought to fine and imprison law enforcement officers who would not enforce it, so too, today, the Department of Homeland Security seeks to coerce compliance by threatening to withhold funds from communities and states who refuse to comply with its detainer requests. Courage to do the right thing will be required.

Rather than listen to the voices of fear and nativism, let’s propose a compassionate and honorable solution to our current situation with undocumented noncitizens in the spirit of timeless Maine values. Let’s honor the sacrifice of our forebears and strive for the dignity of all men. And listen to the better angels of our nature.

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