President Trump has announced that mass raids will begin after the 4th of July to sweep up undocumented immigrants for deportation. Whether he knows it or not, and I’m leaning towards not, he is walking in the footsteps of another.
It has been widely reported that starting as early as today (possibly going on even now), President Trump has ordered nationwide raids to round up and deport undocumented immigrants. Whether he knows it or not, and I’m leaning towards not, he is walking in the footsteps of another. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, another man hyped up on political ambition and spurred on by a wave of nationalist sentiment launched a series of raids to rid the country of the menace of his day.
The first decades of the twentieth century were tumultuous, to say the least. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an American born anarchist with a foreign surname. In 1917, America entered WWI, and the Russian monarchist government fell to Bolshevik revolutionaries. Concerned with the character of the teaming masses yearning to breathe free who were passing through Ellis Island, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1918. This allowed the government to deport undesirable aliens who espoused views with which it didn’t agree without having first to secure a conviction.
This became even more of an issue in the summer of 1919 when a series of letter bombs were sent out. Few made it to their intended marks, mostly members of Congress or the Wilson administration, and the ones that did were largely ineffective. However, a group of Italian anarchists, following the teachings of Luigi Galleani, were blamed for the attempted assassinations. Of particular note was the bomb dispatched to the home of Attorney General Mitchell A. Palmer.
By August, a group had been formed to identify radical groups and their members, known as the General Intelligence Division. At its head was an as yet unknown Justice Department Lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover. Plans were set into motion, and in November a number of Italians were swept up for deportation hearings. However, due to some bumbling on the part of the agents, most of those detained were ultimately released.
Having learned something from this failure, on their next attempt, the GID was more prepared. On January 2, 1920, in thirty-three cities across the country, GID deputized agents interrupted meetings, broke up social events, and ransacked homes looking for Russian anarchists. Arrest warrants had been mass issued and mimeographed to be filled in after individuals were in custody. People were rounded up for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Citizens, as well as non-citizens, were detained. Searches were conducted without a warrant.
And what was the crime of which these people were accused? Being members of labor or immigrant organizations with loose ties to the Communist Labor Party. Most were nonviolent organizations whose members were looking to improve themselves. Some were unions that workers were forced to join upon employment. When questioned later, many individuals were not even aware that the organization they had entered was affiliated with the Communist Labor Party.
None of this was of any concern to Hoover or Palmer. They could make a show of the number of arrests, a set of replica firearms for a stage production, and three iron balls they claimed were bombs. Of over 10,000 arrested, around 3,500 were held in detention, and 556 were eventually deported. Along with a staggering amount of paperwork for the Department of Labor, then in charge of deportations, came the scrutiny of Congress. The raids were largely seen to be unconstitutional, if for no other reason that the Department of Justice had no jurisdiction in this matter. Palmer and Hoover were called to testify and found themselves in hot water. For Palmer, it likely ruined his chances at a presidential run in 1920, as was thought to be his plan.
Hoover went on to head the FBI for decades. Palmer faded into obscurity. And anarchist activity eventually died out. So, why do I bring it up now? For one, I want to remind myself that there was a period in history where an administration was taken to task for its misdeeds. Another reason is that I imagine whatever the president has in mind for his raids will be of similarly questionable legality. And lastly, because I think it’s essential that we remember our nation’s dark times as well as the light. As Americans, we tend to like to sweep our misdeeds under the carpet. We wave our flag and speak of the irrefutable good we have done in the world while ignoring all the harm we have caused.
We are stronger as a nation when we come together. Born here or abroad; English speaking or otherwise; Republican, Democrat, or Independent. Together we make this country the shining beacon to the world John Winthrop imagined. But we get nowhere by demonizing the immigrant. By turning away from basic humanity.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
Post, Louis F. The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-Twenty. C.H. Kerr & Company, 1923.
Charges of Illegal Practices of the Department of Justice, Hearings Before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Sixty-Sixth Congress, Third Session, on Jan. 19, 25, 27, Feb. 1, Mar. 3, 1921 – United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary