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The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union



Reds, Radicals, and Civil Liberties for All

Many Italian immigrants live in Boston's North End

The foreigners were rounded up and held in detention centers for indefinite periods of time. Some were released, while others were deported -- all without due process, the laws that are supposed to make our country so great. No one had access to an attorney, no one got a trial, and most had no idea of the charges brought against them. What crime had they committed? Merely being born in another country?

Imagine it's the 1920s. World War I has just ended and fear of anything un-American is high. This distrust of foreigners and radicals becomes known as the Red Scare, and leads to deportation of innocent aliens and a complete disregard for civil liberties.

Those were different times, you may be thinking. It's too bad it had to happen, but it was after the war and luckily that doesn't go on today.


West Coast Girl - As a laid-back Californian, I'm like a fish out of water in these East Coast cities...

Ah, but guess again my dear friends. "It sounds incredible but this is happening to immigrants now." These are the words of John Roberts, the executive director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that itself grew out of the Red Scare.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Red Scare of 1920 was fueled by the government's attacks on foreigners. As John explained, there was an overwhelming fear of what was "considered to be strange alien political thought -- like anarchism, socialism, communism, all the -isms."

Much of the government action was sparked by the bombings of several officials' homes and offices, including that of the U.S. Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer. Palmer, believing that communists and anarchists were responsible for the bombings (and a wide range of other social problems), asked Congress to put aside special funds for the Justice Department to "fight radicalism." An agency called the General Intelligence Division (GID) was created to monitor radical activities. The GID created sensationalized stories and fed them to the media, which helped build up the Red Scare.

What followed was a series of events known as the Palmer Raids: the arrest and deportation of foreign-born radicals, the majority of which were carried out without search or arrest warrants. One of the first raids was against a group of 249 Russians, including anarchist Emma Goldman, who were sent back to Soviet Russia.

What a charming foreign-born radical! Is there a threat behind that smile?

The term "foreign-born radical" was supposed to strike a chord of fear in people's hearts. Now I ask you, do you think Daphne and I are to be feared? Yes, we are both foreign-born: Daphne in Brazil and myself in Iran. And yes, I suppose we can both be considered radical -- just the fact that we are on this Trek shows that we do not live in traditional ways and are trying to change certain institutions in our society.

And I know that some of the pictures of us on the Web site may be a bit scary, but do you really think we're a threat to society? Palmer may have said so.


The peak of Palmer's raids was on January 2, 1920, when some 10,000 people in 33 cities were arrested on suspicion that they were members of the Communist and Communist Labor parties. But of course many of these people were not members of either party. It's funny how the system works, huh?

All of the arrests led to overflowing detention centers: in Detroit, 800 people were detained for up to six days in a dark, windowless corridor with no food and access to only one toilet for 24 hours. Sometimes the people coming to bail out or visit the detainees were themselves arrested on suspicions of being communist.

Those who were released often did not escape beatings and public ridicule. Here in Boston, for example, 400 detainees were paraded through the streets in shackles so that the government could turn the public against these "radicals" and create hostility toward their beliefs.

Luckily, despite my red pants, the Boston police did not parade me through the streets

Raids were supposed to be against dangerous radicals actively planning a revolution; yet after the seizes were made, all that was found were 3 pistols and several "bombs" that turned out to be iron bowling balls. Now unless Communists know something about bowling balls that I've been missing out on, it doesn't sound like this was the making of a bloody revolution.

Although a judge finally put a stop to deportations, the damage was done. Liberals and social reformers had been intimidated, and thousands of people had been deprived of their civil liberties.

In the middle of all this, when immigrants were being arrested for their associations and deported for their beliefs, a group of defense committees were set up to help bring about due process of the law. These committees eventually formed the ACLU, an organization established to enforce the Bill of Rights.

John Roberts, the executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU

When Daphne and I visited the Massachusetts ACLU to visit with John, we were immediately drawn in by all the civil liberties literature stacked on the shelves. The ACLU has expanded from the issues of the 1920s to cover everything from juvenile justice to freedom of religion to gay rights. Yet one of the big issues is still -- you guessed it -- the rights of immigrants. It's true that so much has changed since the 1920s. The Attorney General probably has not come knocking on your door to check if you are a communist or an anarchist (well, hopefully not). We generally are moving in the right direction; we just sometimes take unfortunate steps backward.

Immigrant rights are still a major issue in our country

According to the ACLU, anti-immigrant laws adopted by Congress in 1996 "tore down our national welcome sign to immigrants and severely restricted their rights to due process of law." Under this harsh legislation, even legal permanent residents who committed minor criminal offenses long in the past can be detained and ordered to leave the country. Many of these people, however, are not being accepted by their native countries. Thus, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been holding them for indefinite periods of time, even after they have completed their criminal sentences. The ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project has led national efforts to overturn indefinite detention and other provisions of the 1996 immigration laws, including the lack of judicial review (access to a court hearing) and the use of secret evidence. According to the project's senior staff attorney, Judy Rabinovitz, "The government insists that because individuals are aliens, they can lock them up for life. But our Constitution protects everyone in the United States, not just citizens."

An exhibit at the Boston Public Library spotlights amazing individuals who are fighting for justice and civil rights

It's happening all over our country. An Egyptian national has spent over three years in prison -- separated from his wife and kids and mostly in solitary confinement -- based on secret evidence. An Atlanta mother of two faces deportation to Nigeria because she was convicted six years ago of shoplifting baby outfits worth $14.99. A father from Jamaica has been a lawful permanent resident since 1975 but now faces deportation based on two marijuana offenses from about 20 years ago. The list goes on. This is just another example of how history is not only what has happened but what is happening. We may not be in the frenzied times of the Red Scare, but immigrants' rights are still being violated. Luckily, organizations such as the ACLU are working hard to combat this.

Posing with my new ACLU tote bag, I'm ready to take on the world!

The excitement that Daphne and I felt at being at the ACLU office and talking to John shows us how times of repression, such as the Red Scare, can give rise to powerful mediums of social change. It shows us that we must continue to fight for the civil liberties of everyone in this country, including foreign-born radicals like ourselves.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Jennifer - Letters home from the frontlines of America's worker strikes
Nick - Steel vs. flesh: A battle for worker's rights
Stephen - When the "Company" is on your back it's time for a gunfight!
Making A Difference - The global market place is destroying our globe