Recently, an email was circulated by anti-immigrant forces saying that they intended to show up “armed” to an immigrants’ rights event at a public library in Georgia, because we as the organizers of the event had dared to challenge law enforcement and “speak [our] minds.” The majority of the speakers, including myself, were immigrants.
As an outspoken immigrant who is often critical of the United States government’s policies, I have often been told to go back “instead of stirring up trouble here.” Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to aggressive and hateful speech in the course of pursuing justice. But this email escalated anti-immigrant rhetoric to threats of violence.
Many immigrants and refugees have left home countries where governments restricted their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They arrived in a country where such freedoms are protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution. And yet, those who become outspoken community organizers, activists and even elected officials in the U.S. are targeted and silenced by the government. This targeting of immigrants and refugees, particularly people of color, for speaking up shows the emptiness of the rhetoric about the sanctity of free speech for all in this country. By silencing outspoken immigrant activists, jailing them and inciting violence against them, the government and White supremacists are attempting to keep immigrants in a state of fear and intimidation.
The targeting of Representative Ilhan Omar—a Somali-American, Muslim, Black woman who came to the United States as a refugee in 1992—is illustrative. She has taken strong positions on U.S. foreign policy, Palestinian liberation and immigrants’ rights. She stands for much of what the Trump administration is against, and the state and White supremacists protest her mere presence in Congress.
While the harassment that Omar has endured is recent, this targeting of outspoken immigrants goes back to at least the early 20th century. Consider the Palmer Raids. Between 1919 and 1920, during the Wilson administration, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led a number of raids against anyone suspected of having ties to leftist groups. The Palmer Raids resulted in the arrest of 3,000 to 10,000 people, the jailing of thousands and the deportation of hundreds of immigrants.
Emma Goldman is one of the people impacted by this ongoing criminalization. A Jewish immigrant to the U.S., she stands as a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism. An influential and well-known anarchist of her day, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women's equality and union organizing. She was arrested for “inciting to riot” after speaking to unemployed workers and encouraging them to take action and demand work. She was arrested again for publicly teaching women how to use contraceptives. Her criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by her deportation in 1919.
More recently, scores of primarily Muslim immigrants have been targeted, imprisoned and deported in the post 9/11 era. Ghassan Elashi is just one example. He was born in Gaza, Palestine, and he was one of the Holy Land Foundation directors targeted by the FBI for leading an organization that did relief work in Palestine. The organization came under investigation a few months after 9/11, causing the government to seize its assets and force its closure.
Despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, Elashi was later convicted for allegedly providing aid to Hamas, which was deemed a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Clinton administration in 1995. He is currently serving a 65-year sentence in a Communications Management Unit, a system that exists within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and predominantly houses Muslims, per reports. The CMU system has faced criticism for discriminatory practices and blatant violations of the constitutional rights of those detained.
In the Trump era, the targeting has also impacted outspoken immigrants such as Ravi Ragbir. The executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a long-time immigrants’ rights leader, he came to the U.S. from Trinidad in 1991. Ragbir has advocated against the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies, has been very critical of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and helped educate community leaders and elected officials on the costs of deporting and separating families. He has faced retribution by the government as a result.
ICE has already deported one member of the New Sanctuary Coalition, Jean Montrevil, and it attempted to do the same to Ragbir. Following a routine ICE check-in in January 2018, the heavily surveilled Ragbir was arrested and detained. But Ragbir and his supporters pushed back via organizing and legal action against ICE. They alleged that the agency was retaliating against him for his speech, and an appeals court agreed. The judge stated that, “public expression of his criticism, and its prominence, played a significant role in [ICE’s] recent attempts to remove him.” In response to the decision, Ravi Ragbir said: “It was all of our voices together that made this decision possible and we have to continue to speak out against the travesty of our deportation system.”
The callous and scary chants of “send her back” directed at Ilhan Omar at the Trump rally in North Carolina sent a chill down my spine and a served as a reminder of the targeting of outspoken immigrants and refugees for state retribution in the U.S. for centuries. The criminalization of immigrant activists in the Trump era has resulted in the disruption of free speech against the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies. And when the government is given the green light to violate the rights of one group of people, we know that it’s only a matter of time before it comes after all of us.
The targeting of immigrants, with the aim of deterring their speech and organizing work, must cease immediately. As immigrants, we cannot allow these threats from the state and White supremacist forces to keep us from doing our work. As Ravi Ragbir said, we have to continue to speak out boldly against policies that we deem racist and xenophobic.
In Georgia, we decided to go ahead with our forum, despite the threats, for that same reason. Georgia is an open-carry state, and we could not legally prevent several members of the anti-immigrant organizations from entering the library with firearms. But when a climate of intimidation and fear is combined with the threat and potential of violence, we look to our history of resistance and the strength of our partners to forge ahead. We organized for the safety of all participants and took security precautions into account. Yes, we ensured that the event was safe and productive, but it is outrageous that as immigrant activists, we have to face the potential threat of an armed attack for daring to speak out against unjust laws. But that will never stop us.
Azadeh Shahshahani is legal and advocacy director with Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She tweets @ashahshahani.