Today in labor history, Jan. 16, 1920, thousands of immigrants, arrested during the vicious Palmer Raids, won a basic constitutional right: legal representation. After raids conducted by U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer in November 1919 and January 1920, some 16,000 were arrested and most were released. However, at least 3,000 people, mostly immigrants, were denied their basic rights to due process like reasonable bail, the right to a defense lawyer and jury trials. Protests forced the government to allow detainees to meet with lawyers and have representation at deportation hearings. More than 550 arrested were eventually deported, including Emma Goldman.
Palmer, obsessed with communist, socialist and other radical working-class organizations of the time, recruited J Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and launched a campaign against the movements. Using violence pushed by some in the anarchist movement as their cover, Palmer invoked the Espionage and Sedition Acts. He created a narrative that communism was “eating its way into the homes of the American workman,” socialists were causing most of the country’s social problems and radicals were on the brink of overthrowing the government.
Palmer also built on anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia among the U.S.-born public as a rationale for the raids. Anti-immigrant sentiment, while present throughout U.S. history, is often fueled by ruling class interests. This was the period when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed based on trumped up charges.
In the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution, coupled with a sharp downturn in the capitalist economy worldwide, the U.S. ruling class trembled. Radical ideas of socialism captured working people’s imagination as they faced unemployment, hunger and poverty under capitalism. If U.S.-born and foreign-born working people were to unite, that could spell trouble for Wall Street and their political titans of the time. Fomenting “Red Scare” and xenophobia would work to their advantage. The same tactics were used against strikers and workers – both U.S. and foreign born – during the 1919 steel strike, for example.
Immigration laws were also discriminatory. In 1921, the Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. Italians, Jews, Slavs and Chinese immigrants were often targeted by such prejudiced laws and policies.
Today, immigrant rights activists continue the fight for immigration reform and an end to mass raids and unjust deportations. Read about one activist’s recent terrifying encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in “Fear, then hope for an immigrant family.”
Photo: Political cartoon showing the devastating effects of the Palmer Raids. (CC)