Remembering the L.A. 8

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

What is more, the act places the burden of proof on the immigrants, whose only hope of staving off detention and deportation is demonstrating that they did not know and should not have known that their assistance would further terrorist activity. At the same time, the definition of terrorism is so broad—encompassing, among other things, the use of a "weapon or other dangerous device . . . to cause substantial damage to property"—that even throwing a rock through a window could qualify.

In an alarmed critique of the act, the ACLU warns that this expansive definition exacerbates the dangers of putting the burden of proof on the immigrant. Under the law's understanding of 'terrorism,' the ACLU notes, World Trade Organization protesters who engage in minor vandalism, abortion foes who practice civil disobedience, or protesters in Vieques, Puerto Rico, who damage a fence would be deemed terrorists. Likewise, purely humanitarian aid to the Northern Alliance, currently a U.S. ally in fighting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, could be called assistance to a terrorist organization.

Worse still, the determination of who is a terrorist is entirely up to the secretary of state, and that, of course, means the label could easily be used to target political dissent, as it arguably was in the case of the L.A. 8, prosecuted in the days before the U.S. itself supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. Indeed, although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that immigrants cannot claim selective prosecution, in one chapter of the L.A. 8 saga, attorneys sought to show that their clients were being singled out only because of their political views. Immigrants from other lands, they argued, often engaged in genuinely militant activities, but were not put into deportation proceedings because the causes they supported served goals of American foreign policy. Activists for the Nicaraguan contras and the anti-Castro Cubans testified that they had never been prosecuted for backing violent movements in their homelands; so did members of the Afghan mujahideen.

The USA PATRIOT Act, in sum, makes it virtually impossible for immigrants to assist humanitarian causes and political movements in their countries of origin and beyond. Thus they are not accorded the constitutional rights to free speech and association.

Though the Supreme Court has ruled in a range of cases that immigrants are covered by the Bill of Rights, the history of U.S. immigration policy has always been a tense struggle between the principle of constitutional protections for immigrants and the broad discretion granted the executive and legislative branches of government to defend borders and sustain national security. In the name of preventing sedition, Communist revolution, or terrorism, the government has often restricted the rights of immigrants. And again and again, their rights have been re-established as challenges to restrictive laws have percolated through the courts.

But not always. Sometimes, especially in times of fear, the courts wobble. The Supreme Court, after all, upheld actions against those speaking out against American involvement in World War I, and also permitted the internment of Japanese immigrants during World War II. So activists must remain on the alert, says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We have to make sure the government does not try to use immigration civil proceedings, where standards of proof are lower and technicalities broader, to accomplish what cannot be accomplished through the criminal justice system," she says. "We cannot let the immigration laws be manipulated to circumvent the Constitution."

Safeguarding the Constitution, says Michel Shehadeh, now 45 and working as the West Coast regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is what drives him. There isn't a day that goes by when he doesn't recall with a shudder the January morning in 1987 when agents barged into his apartment with guns drawn, handcuffed him, and hauled him away, leaving his then three-year-old son wailing and alone. "This was the West Coast of America, not the West Bank under occupation, where I had grown up and might expect such things," he says. "It was a shock and also a wake-up call. I understood that the freedoms and ideals I so relish here do not survive on their own. We cannot take them for granted. We have to protect them vigilantly."

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