Letter to the Sonoma Valley Unified School District
My name is Martin Bennett, Co-Chair North Bay Jobs with Justice, I reside in the city of Sonoma and I have taught American and California history for 25 years at SRJC.
I strongly support the resolution and policy you are considering to protect the constitutional rights, ensure the highest quality of education, and to make local schools a safe and stable learning environment for all students–regardless of their immigration status.
Moreover, I strongly support the specific actions you have recommended which indicate the board will hold all district employees responsible and accountable to effectively implement this policy.
The Trump administration executive order which barred entry by citizens from seven Muslim countries and a series of memos just issued by the Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, reveal that the administration is moving towards implementation of a policy of mass deportation of any undocumented residents–whether or not an individual has committed a serious crime–and to carry out this policy the administration will attempt to enlist local law enforcement and school authorities.
According to the calculations by the Los Angeles Times, up to 8 million undocumented residents could be targeted whose only crime is to state on federal employment forms that they are legally permitted to work in the country.
As a historian it is my obligation to teach my students and educate the public about moments in our history –like the present–characterized by economic crisis, racism, xenophobia, and social hysteria when widespread violations of civil liberties and civil rights have occurred by the Executive Branch of government justified by false and unproven claims about alleged threats to our national security at home and abroad.
Some of the most egregious examples of this phenomenon include the unlawful deportation of 400,000 thousand Mexican and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression; the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II; the blacklisting of alleged communist during the Cold War; and the widespread spying, and electronic survellience by the FBI and CIA on participants in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements in the 1960s
A public statement signed by 200 historians in December of 2016 (including myself) concluded: “These historical persecutions have since been widely repudiated by scholars and elected officials” and were “misguided amoral and should never be repeated.”
I want to emphasize that the policy which is proposed tonight to ensure quality education and protect the constitutional rights of all students is part of a long history of resistance by local and state governments to unjust and unlawful federal policy: our system of dual sovereignty empowers state and local authority to uphold due process, prohibit discrimination, and protect and integrate all residents into our communities, regardless of their legal status under federal law.
One of the best examples of local and state resistance to unjust federal authority is the opposition to the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that enabled southern slaveholders to forcibly capture runaway slaves in the North and made it a crime to assist fugitive slaves. As one of our leading historians Eric Foner describes in his most recent book: ‘Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad’ state and local government in the North passed personal liberty laws that protected all African-Americans whether free or slave; provided blacks the right to have a trial by jury, to give testimony and cross-examine witnesses in court and prohibited removal of any African-American without a court order. City constables, county sheriffs, and state militias were barred from arresting and capturing fugitive slaves, state judges refused to issue certificates of removal, and the courts ruled that local authorities could not be compelled to enforce federal law.
Abolitionists organized mass protests outside courtrooms where fugitive slaves were detained and exposed slave catchers who tried to secretly pursue runaway slaves in Northern cities. Hostility by opponents to the Fugitive Slave Act prohibited slave catchers from entering sections of major cities in the north. Congregations and abolitionists provided sanctuary in their churches and homes to fugitive slaves; raised money to purchase the freedom of captured fugitives; and developed a highly organized clandestine network — the underground railroad–that facilitated the flight of fugitive slaves from Maryland to Pennsylvania to New York and then to Canada that abolished slavery in 1834.
Of course very near to this school resided at one time one of the most famous resistors to unjust federal authority. Mary Ellen Pleasant was a black businesswoman, abolitionist and participant in the Underground Railroad who historians have called “mother of civil rights movement in California” She arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and became a chef and boardinghouse keeper where she sheltered escaped slaves like Archy Lee. In the 1890s she purchased the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen where she vacationed. If she were alive today Mary Ellen would join other California elected officials and civil rights leaders to denounce the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration and no doubt she would have incurred the racist wrath and tweets of our President who claims “California is out of control.” Mary Ellen Pleasant would have agreed.