Immigration & Labor

Fragility in Liberty

We travel from Liberty Island to the U.S.-Mexico border to discover how the end of Reconstruction and America's present-day immigration crisis are inextricably bound.
Itzel Aguilera for WNYC
Framed portrait of Carlos Aguirre Venegas displayed in his mother's house.

Key Findings

  • Carlos Aguirre-Venegas, an undocumented immigrant, spent years crossing back and forth the permeable border from his native Mexico to the US for work, and to be with family.

  • In 2013, Aguirre-Venegas was arrested and charged with the federal crime of entering the US after having been previously deported.

  • The law under which he was charged was passed in the 1920s to control the racial demographics in the United States and enforce white supremacy but had rarely been used until early in this century.

  • Sentenced to 14 months in a US prison, Carlos was overmedicated with a dangerous drug that likely led to his death, leaving a wife and young children behind.

Many of us associate the Statue of Liberty with the poem mounted on her pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The monument has become a symbol of immigration. What fewer of us know is that Lady Liberty was originally conceived as a tribute to the abolition of slavery. In fact, what we find as we look into history is that our country's immigration policy is closely intertwined with the end of Reconstruction and rise of Jim Crow. In this episode, we tell the story of one undocumented immigrant—Carlos Aguirre-Venegas—and trace the origins of a little-known law that's now being used to prosecute tens of thousands of people who crossed the border, separate some from their children, and lock them away in federal prisons.

  • Our partner

- Jim Elkin is a National Park Ranger at Statue of Liberty National Monument

- Eric Foner is author of The Second Founding

Kelly Lytle Hernandez is a professor of History, African American Studies, and Urban Planning at UCLA and author of City of Inmates

Hosted by Kai Wright. Reported by Seth Freed Wessler, in partnership with Type Investigations. Produced and edited by Christopher Werth. For more on Seth's reporting about Carlos Aguirre-Venegas and the privately-run prisons used exclusively to incarcerate non-citizens convicted of crimes, see his 2016 investigation in The Nation.

About the reporter

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler is an investigative reporter at ProPublica and a former reporting fellow at Type Investigations.


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