Getting banks to look for illegal immigrants is reminiscent of the slave era in the US, writes Julia O’Connell Davidson

The prime minister happily invokes the history of transatlantic slavery when it comes to the measures she is implementing against what she calls “modern slavery”. But her ambition to create a “hostile environment” for irregular migrants (UK banks to check 70m bank accounts in search for illegal immigrants, 21 September) evokes rather different historical comparisons.

The constitutions drawn up by “free” northern states in America such as Ohio and Illinois in the early 19th century, for example, may have prevented slavery, but their white architects were at pains to discourage fugitive slaves from southern states from seeking refuge there. They crafted legislation requiring black people with free status to register with their county of residence and carry proof of freedom. Residents who harboured runaway slaves were criminalised, and to assist southern slave owners seeking to recapture runaway slaves, there were laws mandating employers and schools to verify certificates of freedom of all persons racialised as black. Had it been the norm for people to have bank accounts, banks would doubtlessly have been required to police their customers.

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