With Liberty and Justice for Some
You've got to hand it to the U.S. government -- even when it's dead wrong, it refuses to give up a fight.Ten years ago -- in the heyday of Reagan-era, anti-terrorist fervor -- government agents arrested eight Palestinians who lived in California for supporting a Palestinian group known for terrorist activities in the Middle East. Among those detained was Khadar Hamide, a U.S. resident since 1971.Although not U.S. citizens, the eight were legal immigrants, and two of the group, including Khadar, had permanent U.S. resident status. The group members never contested that they had held fund raisers to send money to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P.). But, they maintained, their support was targeted for clinics and schools run by the P.F.L.P., not for the group's terrorist activities, and that such support was protected by the First Amendment.Throughout the years of challenges and charges, the government's underlying position has been that immigrants do not have the same First Amendment rights as do U.S. citizens. And according to Hamide, that stance is dangerous to all residents of the U.S., whether immigrants or citizens."Anytime any group is singled out, it chips away on everyone's civil rights," he says. "Whether you like someone's views or not, it's important to defend their civil rights."So far, the courts have thought so, too. For 10 years, every time the government has brought the "L.A. 8" before the courts, the ruling has been in the 8's favor. The ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyer's Guild and editorials from major newspapers across the country have championed the group's defense.Still, the government refuses to drop the case."We're the guinea pigs -- the test case for other groups where the government does not like what they are doing and wants to limit their freedoms," says Hamide, who continues to live in Los Angeles. "We are being persecuted because of our beliefs and our thoughts."The government's original charge was that the group "advocated world communism" by its public support of the P.F.L.P. Under that charge, 32-year-old Khadar, considered the group's ringleader by the government, spent 23 days in solidarity confinement in a maximum security prison and was interrogated without the presence of a lawyer for one week.But, in fact, the law under which the eight were originally charged -- the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, itself a product of the McCarthy era -- was found unconstitutional and was repealed by Congress in 1990. Then the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to force the deportation of Khadar and another member of the group deported by saying the two men had provided material support to a terrorist organization.The group's lawyers charged the government with selective prosecution, saying the I.N.S. had not deported supporters of other well-known terrorist organizations. "The contras were a terrorist group and did some horrendous things. And they were welcomed in this country," says Khadar. "The people who supported them were not deported or persecuted."Federal District Judge Stephen Wilson agreed with that perspective and stopped the deportation proceedings. His decision was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which, according to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis held that "non-citizens in this country have the same right to free speech and association under the First Amendment as do citizens."The government then submitted 10,000 pages of "evidence" garnered from F.B.I. surveillance (Khadar says the agent rented the apartment next door to his for nine months and installed listening devices in the walls. "They know more about me than my wife does," he says.) According to Lewis, the government asserted the material proved that the group "intended to further P.F.L.P. terrorism."Again, Judge Wilson didn't agree, finding the evidence showed only that the group had participated in "peaceful activities protected by the First Amendment."David Cole, professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University Law Center, has been one of the lawyers defending the "Los Angeles 8" since their arrest. He attributes the government's persistence in the case to a number of factors, not least among them the government's desire to establish a principle that would give it the right to deport people "for participating in peaceful political activity in support of legal ends of an organization the U.S. government doesn't like."As an example, Cole says that, in decades past, the Communist Party did support the overthrow of the U.S. government, but was also involved in civil rights groups and in the labor movement. Back then, the Supreme Court ruled that people couldn't be punished for supporting the lawful activities of the Communist Party."But this case is trying to reverse those precedents," Cole says.Another reason the government doesn't want to drop the case has to do with political image, says Cole. "It's difficult politically for any administration to take responsibility for ending a case in which the government has been screaming 'terrorism' for the past 10 years," he says. "They can't just say, 'Let's stop the case.'" Cole says the case could easily drag on for several more years.Meanwhile, Khadar Hamide lives with his wife and two young sons in a state he describes as "limbo." He is forbidden to leave the country, and last year was unable to travel to the West Bank to visit his dying father. "We don't know if we are staying or leaving the country. And because we don't feel we did anything illegal, we don't know for sure what is legal for us to say or do."While dismayed that his youthful idealism has been replaced with a more sober awareness that First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are restricted for some groups, he also believes "that the legal system here is pretty fair, although it may take 10, 15 or 20 years to get justice."Khadar has also come to appreciate the sometimes hard-to-swallow civil rights maxim that people must rise to the defense of others' rights. With some groups -- such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists -- that stance is very hard to take, he admits. "But if the government wins this, they could go after anyone -- Muslems, Croations, anyone they don't like. This whole case has a tremendously chilling effect -- on us and on others who are similarly situated."