MASS ARREST OF ALIENS: THEN AND NOW

jacdon at earthlink.net jacdon at earthlink.net
Thu Dec 13 13:38:16 MST 2001


The following article will appear in the Dec. 15 issue 
of the Mid-Hudson (NY) activist newsletter.

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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 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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