Remembering the L.A. 8

The INS and Its Critics Take Lessons From a Relentless Pursuit of Immigrants

Michel Shehadeh considers it something of a victory that the FBI has not come knocking on his door in the weeks following September 11. "It proves that they know we are not dangerous in the least," says Shehadeh, one of the eight defendants in a notorious 15-year-long immigration case in which the U.S. government has sought to deport seven Palestinians and the Kenyan-born wife of one of them.

The case was a central reference point in the Bush administration's crafting of new "anti-terrorist" legislation, which was signed into law on Friday. It offers a chilling example of how the new USA PATRIOT Act threatens the constitutionally protected activities of immigrants. The case began in 1987, when federal agents stormed the Los Angeles homes of activists for Palestinian self-determination and accused them, under a Cold War relic of a law, of being associated with an organization that "advocates the doctrines of world Communism." (Specifically, the government alleged, they distributed magazines and gave talks endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state.)

After that tack was declared unconstitutional a couple of years later, the U.S. slapped new charges on two of the eight in 1991. Using a law passed in 1990, it alleged that they had provided material support to a "terrorist organization in conducting its terrorist activities" by having made donations—in the 1980s—to hospitals and day-care centers associated with a militant faction of the PLO.

The action against the L.A. 8, as they came to be known, is one of the hallmark cases in immigration law of the last 50 years. It has bred numerous law-review essays addressing the extent to which immigrant speech and political dissent may be restricted. Rejected by courts and decried on editorial pages from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times, this case has long been regarded as an illustration of the dangers (not to mention the needless expense) of the hell-bent hounding of immigrants under absurdly broad definitions of "terrorism." Yet these are the very efforts the Bush administration has authorized and codified in the new laws.

Over the years, a series of court rulings at various levels has repeatedly held that the L.A. 8 do not deserve to be deported for having exercised their First and Fifth Amendment rights to free expression and association. Also, referring to mountains of material obtained through several years of wiretapping and other surveillance of the L.A. 8, former FBI director William Webster said that none of the accused had ever engaged in criminal activity, and that if they had been citizens, "there would not have been a basis for their arrest."

In the latest ruling, in June, an immigration judge threw out the charges, asserting that the defendants could not be prosecuted under laws that didn't even exist when proceedings against them began; in August the government filed an appeal, which is now pending. As the case has wended its way through immigration, district, and federal courts, the L.A. 8 have remained lawfully in the U.S., some marrying American citizens and raising children born here; none has ever been accused of engaging in any illegal activity. "Don't you think that if the government honestly thought any of us had something to do with trying to harm this country, they'd have come and questioned us last month?" Shehadeh asks. "For 15 years, they have been after the wrong guys."

True, there's no reason why the government would think Shehadeh and his fellow defendants would have anything to do with the twin towers attacks. But according to David Cole, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who has led the federal court fight against the Immigration and Naturalization Service's effort to deport the L.A. 8, "there's no question that the administration had this case in mind" as it pushed for restrictive laws in the wake of the tragedy.

Arguments over immigrant provisions of the anti-terrorism act had at their core two major issues: Do immigrants have the same constitutional rights as citizens? And, can immigrants be singled out and deported for innocent associations with organizations deemed "terrorist"?

These, says Cole, are the very questions underlying the L.A. 8 case, and courts have answered them in favor of immigrants. So the Bush administration tried to draft language that would withstand the sorts of arguments that have defeated the feds in their relentless pursuit of the L.A. 8. They brought in the lead prosecutor against the L.A. 8, Michael Lindemann, as an advisor in the Senate negotiations on the bill.

"The bill the administration put forward attempted to get around legislatively all the legal arguments the courts had accepted in the L.A. 8 case," explains Marc Van Der Hout, a San Francisco-based attorney who has been representing the L.A. 8 since 1987 on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild. For instance, the USA PATRIOT Act establishes as law the government's heretofore shaky claim that helping to fund a day-care center or hospital run by an organization that may also have a military wing constitutes giving material aid to terrorists—even if the U.S. has not officially designated that organization as terrorist.

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