Reds, Radicals, and Civil Liberties for All
West Coast Girl / As a laid back California Girl...
Imagine it is the 1920s. World War I has just ended and people are afraid of anything that seems un-American. This distrust of foreigners and people with different ideas (radicals) becomes known as the Red Scare. It leads to innocent people being abused because they were not American-born. The foreigners were rounded up and held in detention centers. Some were released while others were deported. And all without due process of the law. There was no access to attorneys, no trials, and often no idea of the charges.
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 does not go on today. "It's 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. This organization was formed during the Red Scare.
The Red Scare of 1920 began when the government began attacking foreigners. As John explained, there was an overwhelming fear of anything different.
Much of the government action began when the home of the U.S. Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer. Palmer, was bombed. Because he believed that communists and anarchists were responsible for the bombings (and a wide range of other social problems) Mitchell asked Congress to put aside special funds for the Justice Department to "fight radicalism." A special part of the government was set up; called the General Intelligence Division. The GID 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 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.
On January 2, 1920 when some 10,000 people in 33 cities were arrested on the 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. Hundreds of people were put into detention centers. Sometimes the people coming to bail out or visit them were themselves arrested on suspicions of being communist.
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.
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.
Those who were released often did not escape beatings and public ridicule. 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 towards their beliefs.
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 protect them. These committees eventually formed the ACLU, an organization established to enforce the Bill of Rights.
When Daphne and I visited the Massachusetts ACLU to visit with John, we explored 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 the rights of immigrants. It is true that so much has changed since the 1920s. We generally are moving in the right direction; we just sometimes take unfortunate steps backwards.
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 can be detained and ordered to be deported. Many of these people, however, are not being accepted in 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 stop this.
It is happening all over our country. There is the Egyptian national who has spent over 3 years in prison--separated from his wife and kids and mostly in solitary confinement-based on secret evidence. There is the Atlanta mother of 2 who faces deportation back to Nigeria because she was convicted six years ago of shoplifting baby outfits worth $14.99. There is the father from Jamaica who 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 just 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.
The excitement that Daphne and I felt at being at the ACLU office shows us that we must continue to fight for the civil liberties of everyone in this country, including foreign-born radicals like ourselves.
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Links to Other Dispatches
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Stephen - When the "Company" is on your back it's time for a gunfight!
Nick - Steel vs. flesh: A battle for worker's rights