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MASS ARRESTS OF ALIENS: THEN AND NOW

Ashcroft's raids recall an earlier roundup of aliens that took place across the United States 82 years ago in January.
The following article will appear in the Dec. 15 issue of the Mid-Hudson (NY) activist newsletter. For free
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MASS ARRESTS OF ALIENS: THEN AND NOW

By Jack A. Smith

The Justice Department's mass roundup of 1,200 immigrants from the Middle East and its plans to interrogate over 5,000 more in its investigation of the Sept. 11 events, recalls an earlier roundup of aliens that took place across the United States 82 years ago in January.

This was the infamous event known as the Palmer Raids, named for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who was of the view that "90% of the Communist and radical agitation [in the U.S.] is traceable to aliens." According to Frank J. Donner in The Age of Surveillance (1980), "When the raids took place in cities all over the country early in January 1920, Bureau [of Investigation] agents, frequently with the assistance of local 'red squads,' rounded up from 5,000 to an estimated 10,000 suspected radicals, holding most incommunicado and subjecting many to extreme brutality. Hundreds were incarcerated for long periods of time without arrest warrants, and warrantless searches were common."

The Palmer Raids were just one of a number of instances in U.S. history where there were massive roundups of foreigners or of American citizens belonging to a racial minority or espousing radical political beliefs. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and interned during World War 2, of course. In the 1960s-70s racial profiling was employed by the government to question, harass or arrest masses of African-Americans struggling for equality. At the same time, police in many cities established intrusive "Red Squads" and hired many thousands of part-time paid "informants" to aid the FBI in spying upon and disrupting left political groups, and the antiwar and civil rights movements, resulting in many arrests, ruined lives and some deaths.

Today's Ashcroft Raids, named after ultra-conservative Attorney General John Ashcroft, include a demand that police departments and college officials across the country follow up the Justice Department's questioning and incarceration of over 1,200 non-citizens by participating in questioning over 5,000 additional young men from the Middle East who arrived in the U.S. during the last two years on non-immigrant visas, mainly on student visas. Ashcroft has not suggested there is an iota of evidence that any of the visa-holders in this larger group had any involvement in the Sept. 11 terror raids in New York City and Washington. It's a massive, racial-profile-driven "fishing expedition" that many civil liberties and progressive organizations have criticized as ultimately threatening the rights of all American citizens as well as non-citizens. So far, none of Ashcroft's earlier detainees has been convincingly linked to terrorism, although one has just been indicted.

Not all police departments or universities are comfortable with the Justice Department's new instructions. Portland police officials have refused to comply, suggesting such mass questioning without a prior hint of individual complicity is illegal. Police in San Francisco and Minneapolis have been strongly critical. So far, several public universities--Eastern Michigan, Michigan State, Univ. of Michigan/Ann Arbor, and Univ. of Wisconsin/Madison-- say they will decline to participate in the mass questioning. Fueling these concerns are maneuvers by the White House to abrogate civil liberties in general in the aftermath of the attacks--from efforts to gut the Fourth Amendment to the preference for military courts and secret trials to try suspects netted in President Bush's ever-expanding "war on terrorism."

Ashcroft's next plan is to eliminate restrictions on the FBI, imposed after the exposure of counter-intelligence misdeeds during the 1960-70s, to allow the agency to resume spying upon domestic political and religious organizations. He is also seeking a federal appeals court ruling to allow him to detain or deport aliens on the basis of secret evidence. When members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the attorney general Dec. 6, he declared that criticism of the Bush administration's domestic program for fighting terrorism "gives ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends." At another point, he indicated such criticisms "only aid terrorism."

The Palmer Raids lasted for several months, but early January 1920 was the high point. They offer some interesting parallels to today's Ashcroft Raids. According to an account in the American Social History Project's excellent textbook, Who Built America? (Volume 2, 1992), "The mobilization of municipal police forces, state militias, and federal courts... was part of a large postwar business-government offensive against radicals and labor militants. This offensive, which focused on the foreign-born, took place despite the fact that by the fall of 1919 the worldwide advance of radicalism had been largely checked.... In the United States the socialist movement was splintered, while the IWW was devoting much of its energy to defending members facing trial on wartime charges. Nevertheless, official and unofficial 'loyalty' organizations intensified their anti-radical crusade."

Palmer was foremost among the red-hunters, this account continued. "In November 1919, Palmer's agents arrested 250 members of the Union of Russian Workers, beating up many though recommending only 39 for deportation. The next month, 249 aliens were shipped off to the Soviet Union. Most had never been charged with a crime. Some, like the well known anarchist Emma Goldman, had been in the U.S. for decades. The largest of the Palmer Raids took place in January 1920 when federal agents arrested 6,000 alleged Communists in 33 cities across the country. Many were arrested without warrants and were not allowed to contact lawyers or their families. Confessions were sometimes coerced. Some of those arrested had no connections whatsoever to radical activities, but were detained for up to a week nonetheless."

Palmer's objective, in addition to "saving the country" from socialism -- always a convenient camouflage for dubious intentions -- was to use the raids to further his ambition to obtain the Democratic Party's nomination for president in the 1920 elections. He followed up the January raids (which resulted in 600 deportations) with a warning that the left would engage in mass violence throughout the country on May Day that year. "Police were mobilized, buildings guarded, and political leaders protected," relates Who Built America?, "but the day passed quietly. Discredited, the entire drive began dying down."

Joel Kovel, in Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), wrote: "As remarkable as the [red] scare's fury was the rapidity with which it died down. By mid-1920, Palmer was regarded as a national joke and his presidential ambitions lay in ruins as civil libertarians protested against the excesses of repression. Meanwhile, repression had served its purposes: labor was in full retreat, the Communist Party had been shattered and gone underground..., antidemocratic institutions of police repression had been installed, and the United States had been made safe for business....

"Much more was accomplished in 1919 [and 1920] than a strategic defeat of the left. The red scare succeeded because it firmly associated the notion of radical worker insurgency with the abiding American dread of the alien." After noting that the campaign linked repression of political radicalism to antagonism toward the foreign-born and to anti-Semitism, Kovel continued: "Thereafter ... ordinary citizens, the working people whom the radicals wanted to emancipate, had learned that they could avoid estrangement [in American society] through anticommunism. For to hate and fear Communism was the sure way of proving one's American identity."

Eight decades later, the Bush administration's racial-profiling of immigrants is not that different from Palmer's political/alien-profiling. For the moment, the fear and hatred of "terrorists from the Middle East" has replaced that of communism as the arch-enemy of corporate America and as a testament to 100% patriotism. But anticommunism still remains the principal requirement for expressing "Americanism" in our society, and it could well resurface at the first opportunity, perhaps to be directed at left forces in the peace movement should antiwar sentiment interfere with President Bush's plans for extending the "war against terrorism" to other countries.

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