Civil Liberties: The 2004 Forecast

If the first few weeks of 2004 are any indication, the Bush administration is stepping up its assault on civil liberties. A few legislative victories for civil liberties have done little to stop the over all trend toward more and more repressive legislation. Looking at what’s happened in just the first two weeks of 2004, here’s an overview of eight things to expect the rest of the year.

1) Silence

On Jan. 12 the Supreme Court turned down an appeal challenging the secrecy surrounding the arrests and detentions of hundreds of people in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Not a single link to terrorism has been proven from these arrests, which came largely during the mandatory registration of men from Muslim countries a year ago, and many of the arrestees have already been deported for immigration violations.

Yet the Supreme Court upheld the previous decision of a U.S. Court of Appeals that releasing information about the arrests "would give terrorist organizations a composite picture of the government investigation." Since by most measures it was an ineffective investigation as far as preventing terrorism goes, it seems the most this composite picture would do is give "terrorists " more scorn for our judicial system. Effectively closing the books on this case should be seen not only as a civil liberties violation for those involved and their families, many of whom are legal U.S. residents, but for the general public. A precedent is set every time the administration is able to get away with imposing secrecy and silence in the name of national security. Now the court is essentially saying that even two years after the terrorist attacks, the citizenry doesn't have the right to examine or evaluate their government's response.

Meanwhile, detainees are still being held in Guantanamo Bay without right to counsel or the courts, as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of this arrangement. Though this could end up being a civil liberties victory depending on how the court rules, the matter is still up in the air. "In depriving the Guantanamo prisoners of the universally recognized right to due process before the law, our government not only flouts the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the 'decent opinion of mankind' sought by our nation's founders in the Declaration of Independence," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero in a statement, as the ACLU and other groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the detainees. "No government should be able to assume such unilateral authority over people's basic rights, most crucially during times of threat to our own democracy."

2. Surveillance

The PATRIOT Act hasn't been in the news quite so much lately; and civil liberties proponents breathed a sigh of relief when the proposed so-called PATRIOT Act II was revealed by the media and consequently tabled last year. But the fact is the surveillance and other tenets of the PATRIOT Act are being used as you read this, and there is doubtless work still going on behind the scenes to push through the more extreme measures of PATRIOT Act II in different ways. Perhaps the first big civil liberties- surveillance related measure to be rolled out in 2003 was the U.S.-VISIT program, in which foreign visitors and immigrants are fingerprinted and photographed upon entry to the U.S. Citizens of 27 European and other U.S.-allied countries are exempt, however. This is a gap of logic -- there is no reason citizens of these countries wouldn't be plotting terrorist acts -- just remember failed shoe-bomber and British national Richard Reid. And more important, it is another way to needlessly build resentment against the U.S. by infringing on the civil liberties of foreign visitors. "You fingerprint someone when they're going to prison," said an 18-year-old Mexican man arriving at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, to start his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, on Jan. 5, the first day of U.S.-VISIT. "Do they want us to feel like prisoners here? How would you like it?" Brazil decided to reciprocate by fingerprinting U.S. citizens, and apparently an American pilot, Dale Robbin Hirsh, didn't like it very much. He was arrested Jan. 14 after flipping the bird to Brazilian agents; he was charged with showing disrespect to authorities, a crime that can carry a six-month to two-year jail sentence.

3. Focus on the Death Penalty

Between the historic commutation of all death sentences in Illinois by former Gov. George Ryan and other reforms around the country last year, and the increased focus on war-on-terrorism-related human rights and civil liberties abuses, the death penalty has dropped off the public radar screen to some extent. But it hasn't gone away, and the decreased attention it receives means various legislative reforms or victories in individual cases, many of which are still caught up in the appeals process, could be rolled back. On January 14, a man named Lewis Williams was executed in Ohio after his defense's claims that he is mentally retarded were rejected by the court. Four guards were needed to pry the 117-pound man away from a table he was grasping and carry him to the death chamber, according to news reports. As he was strapped to the execution gurney he cried out, "I'm not guilty. God, help me!" Scenes like this illustrate the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the death penalty, a policy that also debases those who are forced to carry it out -- like the guards who had to pry Williams from the table. The ACLU notes that nine executions are scheduled for January: three in Texas, two in Arkansas, one in North Carolina, one in Oklahoma and two in Ohio.

4. More Mandatory Minimums

Like the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other crimes, which take away a judge's discretion in the case, have been around for a while. But again with so much focus on the war-on-terror-related policies, it's easy to forget that many people are more likely to have their lives interrupted or destroyed by a harsh mandatory minimum sentence than a terror-related probe. In one recent quirky but chilling example, an 18-year-old Puerto Rican computer whiz from a troubled home was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trading child pornography over the internet. Jorge Pabon-Cruz was charged with advertising for the distribution of child pornography, which under a 1996 law carries a 10-year minimum federal penalty. Pabon-Cruz had set up a server to distribute pornography to other internet users, though he was not profiting from the trade.

The federal judge in the case, Gerard Lynch, denounced the forced sentence as "the worst case of my judicial career" and said it "has the potential to do disastrous damage to someone who himself is not much more than a child." Regardless of the serious issue of child pornography -- and many of the images in this case were reported to be extreme -- the idea that a teenager will have his life forever changed, and his physical and mental health seriously endangered by a decade in an adult prison for neither creating nor profiting off this pornography is deeply disturbing.

And every day hundreds of people including teenagers and grandmothers are being handed down inordinately harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, sentences that will alter the course of their lives forever, in many cases because they were just unfortunate enough to have a drug-dealing boyfriend or grandchild.

5. Increasingly Regressive Drug Policy and Enforcement

Along with mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes, the overall zealous and arbitrary enforcement of the war on drugs continues to be a major civil liberties problem for huge numbers of Americans. As 2003 came to a close, for example, students and parents around the country were stunned by video footage from surveillance cameras at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, where during an early morning raid on Nov. 5 students as young as 14 were held at gunpoint by police officers who handcuffed them, searched them and allowed drug-sniffing dogs within inches of their bodies. In December the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of 20 students charging their constitutional rights were violated.

6. Immigrants as Guests, and as Exploited Workers

With his mid-January announcement of a new guest worker program, President Bush gave the Mexican government and many immigration reform proponents what they had long been lobbying for.

The plan will allow undocumented immigrants living abroad to petition for temporary visas to work for a specific employer legally in the U.S. -- exempting undocumented workers already living in the U.S., who have "broken the law" to come here.

Many immigrants' rights groups did welcome the decision, since it will give workers an opportunity to earn a living without the constant fear of deportation. But this program could actually be a set-back for immigrants' rights, and by extension the civil liberties of immigrants and citizen workers alike. Because while it legalizes immigrant workers, it makes them even more reliant on and vulnerable to their employers, as they were without documents. As with the existence of undocumented labor, this essentially gives employers the upper hand in labor negotiations and allows them to lower the bar on wages and benefits across whole industries.

Many also see it as a moral affront to the immigrant workers themselves -- you can do our work for us, but you can't stay. The coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of migrant agricultural workers in southern Florida, describes the program as an attack on the dignity and rights of all workers: "Rather than raise wages and improve conditions to attract and maintain a stable workforce, as the market would have it, employers have lobbied their friends in the Bush Administration for the right to circumvent the U.S. labor market altogether and import low-wage workers directly from countries far poorer than the United States," says a statement from the Coalition. The President's proposal would grant their wish, while cloaking this thinly-veiled subsidy to low-wage industry in the compassionate clothing of immigration reform.

7. Double-speak

The guest worker proposal could be seen as just one more example of the current administration's propensity to try to pass off initiatives which could harm millions of people and the environment as exactly the opposite of what they really are: Healthy Forests. No Child Left Behind. The Clear Skies Initiative. The Liberation of Iraq.

We've heard enough of them. If you consider it a civil liberty to have access to accurate information about what your tax dollars are being used for and what decisions are being made in your name, this continuing deception as we move toward the election could be seen as one of the biggest civil liberties violations of all.

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