Danger Among Us, Part 2: The Case of the L.A. Eight
By Omar Mansour/ Arab America Contributing Writer
“War on Terrorism Hits LA,” reads the headline of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on Januarary 27th, 1987. In 1987, the Reagan administration targeted eight individuals for deportation on the grounds that they were connected to a communist group, specifically the Marxist-Leninist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. Khader M. Hamide; Julie Mungai, the Kenyan wife of Khader; Michel Shehadeh; Bashar Amer; Aiad Barakat; Amjad Obeid; Ayman Obeid; and Naim Sharif became known as the L.A. Eight.
Specifically, the government targeted the eight immigrants’ efforts to distribute Al Hadaf, the Popular Front’s magazine, a publication already available in public libraries, on college campuses and even at the U.S. Library of Congress. They also organized public events to raise humanitarian aid for Palestinians. This would signal the start of a 20-year long government effort to deport these individuals on the basis of their political activism for Palestine, as well as fulfill other, more sinister goals.
On Janurary 26th, 1987, in the early hours just before dawn, INS/FBI swat teams swooped down on the homes of the eight, arresting them at gunpoint. Michel Shehadeh, one of the eight, recounts:
“I was living in Long Beach then. I was sleeping in my apartment with my three-year-old son when about 15 agents barged into my house and handcuffed me and dragged me outside in front of my son. And outside, the scene was like a scene from Hollywood. We had the local police, three carloads, aiming their guns at the house and a helicopter hovering on top of the house. And they took me to prison where we were in custody — it was then I found out that the other seven were also arrested. We were incarcerated in San Pedro State Prison, maximum security for 23 days”
Return of 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, though every suit brought against them was defeated. Indeed, none of the L.A. Eight 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 and their engaging and effective organizing around the Palestinian cause. As Michel Shehedah tells Arab America, “We were changing opinions and we changing minds and they wanted to get rid of us.”
Early on, the government focused its efforts on Hamide and Shehadeh, the only members of the group with permanent resident status. As Michel Shehadeh tells Arab America, “they had (a) tactic of separating us. they dropped the political charges on the six who didn’t have any green cards and accused them of visa violations”. However, the goal was still the same for all 8 individuals – deportation. Shehedah quotes INS representative William Odencrantz, “we don’t care how we score our touchdown, by pass or run. We just want to get them out of the country.”
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 the Act was thrown out by Congress in 1990, eventually replacing it with a new statute making it a deportable offense to “engage in terrorist activity.” Communism was simply substituted with a new boogyman, terrorism. This began a new pattern of failing to convinct and deport them under new laws, then creating new laws with the hopes of deportation. They were first charged under the McCarran-Walter Act, then under the 1990 Immigration Act, then under the 1996 Antiterrorism Act, then under the PATRIOT Act, and also under the Real ID Act. Legal loss after legal loss, new law after new law, for 20 years; why? Was this completely about Palestinian activism, something thousands of others were engaging in all around this case?
While the 8 were still in jail back in 87’, trying to figure out exactly why they had been arrested and targeted, a memo was leaked to the press, detailing a secret plan. This plan was entitled: “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan.” Within this plan was the outline of a test case, a legal precedent, so that in case of war or incident with an Arab country, Arab Americans would be rounded up en masse and put into camps. As Shehade tells Arab America, this was soon after Reagan had bombed Libya, and he was afraid of Arabs becoming a fifth column inside the US. Shehedeh tells Arab America, “they wanted to do the same thing to the Arab community, as they did to the Japanese community, basically rounding up the Arab American community as a whole, and put them in concentration camps. They needed laws to help them do that and our case would provide that test case to put those laws in the books”. This memo was also informed by the INS’ frustration at being unable to force Iranians in the US to sign up for a nation wide registry after the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis.
The 40-page memo described a government contingency plan for rounding up thousands of legal residents of eight specified nationalities: Libya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. Emergency legal measures would be deployed, such as rescinding the right to bond, claiming the privilege of confidential evidence, excluding the public from deportation hearings, among others. Buried in its final pages, the memo struck its most sinister tone: A procedure to detain and intern thousands of immigrants while they awaited what would presumably become a mass deportation. The details conjured a vivid image of a massive detainment facility: 100 outdoor acres in the backwoods of Louisiana, complete with specifications for tents and fencing materials, cot measurements and plumbing requirements.
Whether or not the memo and plan were to be followed through with fully or even partly, the test case outlined in the memo matched the LA 8 case to the letter, and the following 20-years of legal battles and new laws show that there indeed was a desire to create some sort of legal precedent for deportation on the charges of engaging in “undesirable” political activity, in this case the Palestinian cause, and these 8, particular Shehadeh and Hamide, were that test case. We can see the LA 8 as also foreshadowing Guantanamo Bay.
“The Toll on Our Lives was Horrendous” :
The LA 8 were under constant government surveillance. Shehadeh tells Arab America “they had cameras put in our walls, spying on the inside of our homes…they had FBI agents living next door to us listening to everything we do”. The psychological and financial effects took their heavy toll as well. Shehadeh states: “The toll on our lives was horrendous – our lives were put in limbo. You couldn’t plan anything long term because you could have been deported at any moment. You can see the opportunities that we lost – we couldn’t get employment because we had been in the newspaper, our marriages were put under stress, our kids were living under the pressure of their dad being accused of being a terrorist.” Every day of your life for 20 years, living in a constant state of insecurity, unsure of the fate of yourself or your family.
Justice at Last?
In 2007, after 20 years of persecution for activities that would be protected and hardly even noticed if done by citizens, all charges were dropped and the case finished. The government’s decision to throw in the towel came after Bruce J. Einhorn, a federal immigration judge in Los Angeles, blasted federal officials for violating the men’s rights. Einhorn said the government’s conduct in the case was “an embarrassment to the rule of law” that left “a festering wound on” Hamide and Shehadeh, who had been in legal and personal limbo for more than two decades.
This victory did not come randomly after 20 years, however. Seeing the obvious similarities to the internment of Japanese Americans, The Japanese American Citizens League came to their defense. The organization, whose members carried the memory of the internment camps, came to the public aid of the LA Eight, attending press conferences and distributing flyers in their defense. In addition to this, as Michel puts it, broad coalition building with various politically active communities – and their were more than a few that could relate to being targeted by the US government – as well as the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers guild was the foundation of this decades long struggle, and their work is what led to their much delayed freedom and this must be recognized. What must also be recognized is that this attack was launched because of their work for and support of Palestine and Palestinian rights – attacks which did not stop and have not slowed down until today.
Check out our blog here!