Victory for the First Amendment: Palestinian immigrants thwart 20-year effort by U.S. to deport them for their radical views

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On Oct. 31, 2007, the LA 8 scored a hard-earned and long sought victory for the First Amendment rights of immigrants when the Board of Immigration Appeals dropped all deportation proceedings against Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh.

The decision marks the end of a 20-year ordeal for the two men, who are both originally from the West Bank but have lived in the U.S. their entire adult lives as permanent residents and raised families here.

Hamide and Shehadeh are part of a group of seven Palestinians and one Kenyan, who were originally rounded up in Los Angeles in 1987, thrown into a maximum security prison for three weeks, and then threatened with deportation because of their political activism and advocacy for Palestinian statehood.

Hamide and Shehadeh became the main targets of the government persecution campaign, and the board’s agreement to drop attempts to deport the men lays the government’s longest-running deportation case to rest. Shehadeh called the decision a “victory not only for the LA 8 but for the First Amendment of the Constitution and for the rights of all immigrants.”

Modern day McCarthyism. Ever since the LA 8 were first raided and tossed into jail, the government tried to use various laws that are designed to deny immigrants their basic civil liberties on the basis of political association and ideology. None of the LA 8 was ever charged with an actual crime. Then-FBI Director William Webster stated that if the LA 8 had been citizens, there would have been no basis for rounding them up. But as immigrants, the LA 8 were targeted because of their pro-Palestinian sympathies, in particular activity connected to the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine.

Specifically, they distributed the PFLP’s magazine, Al Hadaf, a publication available at public libraries across the U.S. They also organized public events to raise humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

Initially, the government tried to deport the two men under the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act. The law makes it a deportable defense to associate with any group that advocates world communism. But when the men went to federal court over the deportation proceedings in 1989, a judge ruled parts of the Act unconstitutional, and the Act was repealed by Congress one year later – a huge victory for the LA 8 and for everyone’s right to dissent.

Long journey to justice. After the government’s case on the basis of anti-communism collapsed, the “war on terrorism” was conveniently substituted as the vehicle to make an example of the LA 8. But the Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild helped Shehade and Hamide fight to defend their civil liberties in federal court.

In 1995, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the government’s assertion that immigrants were not entitled to the same constitutional rights as citizens. Later, the court also ruled that the constitution does not allow “guilt by association,” and that the government can’t deport individuals unless it’s proven there was intent to support illegal activity.

The courts also barred deportation on the grounds that the government, in violation of the First Amendment, selectively targeted the group for engaging in protected activity. But in 1996, Congress stripped federal courts of authority to hear selective-enforcement challenges to deportation.

In 1999, in a complete reversal of favorable federal court rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted that immigrants don’t have the same civil liberties as citizens. And after Sept. 11, 2001, against a backdrop of mass roundups of Muslims and Arab immigrants, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to use the LA 8 case as a test for the USA Patriot Act. The government also tried to resurrect the McCarran-Walter Act against the men on the technical ground that a repealed law doesn’t effect a pending case!

The virulence of the government’s campaign to deport both men, underscored the political nature of the attack. In 2003, the case was heard before federal immigration judge Bruce Einhorn, and in 2007, he threw out the case once and for all calling the government’s conduct “an embarrassment to the rule of law.” Einhorn’s brave ruling paved the way for the October victory. Hooray for the First Amendment! Congratulations to the LA 8!

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