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Today’s Runaway Slaves: Unauthorized Immigrants in a Federalist Framework


"Today’s Runaway Slaves" engages in long-standing debates about American federalism, slavery and immigration law, civil and immigrant rights, and racial politics. The central puzzle it addresses is how American federalism and social movements shape the development of state and local sanctuary laws that protect classes of people, who federal law considers unlawfully present inside the United States. I employ an innovative research design of documenting and comparing laws protecting runaway slaves from 1780-1860 with contemporary laws on Central American asylum seekers from 1980-1997 and undocumented immigrants from 2000-2017. From this original research, I offer analysis of what I term a "federalism conflict" between federal and state/local laws on free movement and presence, and develop the term "free presence" to make sense of how sanctuary laws accumulate to decouple states from enforcing federal law in ways that benefit the life chances of runaway slaves and undocumented immigrants.

The dissertation makes two contributions: a long-run institutional account of sanctuary policies rooted in the U.S. Constitution and federalism; a general theory accounting for the proliferation of sanctuary policies and variation in each historical period. On the long-run question, I argue that the courts institutionalize states’ semi-sovereignty and what I term a federalism conflict that has always allowed for sanctuary laws to emerge and proliferate, which I reveal through court decisions on slavery, alienage, and immigration. On the empirical question, I advance a theory of coalition building in a federalism framework to explain variation in sanctuary policies in antebellum and contemporary periods. Sanctuary policies emerge out similar fights for federal abolition and federal immigration reform. I posit that federalism’s structure shapes the timing of where and when sanctuary policies emerge: national activists commit to a federal reform strategy, and sanctuary policies gain clout only after numerous failures at the national level occur. National activists respond to repeated national failure by revising their reform strategy to include subfederal sanctuary polices; after this shift, my theory posits that state and local coalition building contexts explain the differences in the timing and scope of sanctuary policies across jurisdictions.

Sanctuary policies animate long-standing debates in American politics. Without comprehensive reform at the national level, states and localities play a critical protective role over runaway slaves and undocumented immigrants, who live in fear of re-enslavement and deportation. My dissertation explains how federalism empowers advocacy coalitions within states and localities to contest national policy, connects America’s abolitionist heritage to salient questions shaping today’s immigration debates, develops a timely framework and concepts to understand why classes of people lacking federal legal status are welcomed by states and localities, and why sanctuary policies contribute to the ongoing project of American democracy and civil rights.

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