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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Revisiting the 'Palmer Raids' in the Trump era

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, 8:03 p.m.

In 1920, federal law enforcement officers arrested and began deporting tens of thousands of southern and eastern European immigrants, without regard for any real facts and with no attention paid to even the most fundamental protections under the U.S. Constitution.

The “Palmer Raids” got their name from Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who hoped that his get-tough policy toward immigrant labor union supporters would land him in the White House. At Palmer’s side was J. Edgar Hoover, a young Justice Department lawyer who was too eager to please.

It was easy enough for Palmer to target immigrants. The froth of political currents at the time included anarchist bombings, traumatic remnants of the Great War and daily headlines about the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. That made it easy for nativists to create a “Red Scare.”

So, instead of chasing down those who were responsible for actual crimes, Palmer rode the populist wave. Mass round-ups trapped thousands of innocent Italians and Russians and Eastern Europeans, and a name ending in a vowel became probable cause to make an arrest.

In short order, the raids were recognized as debacles, based on faulty intelligence with no regard for civil rights. And Palmer’s political career tanked.

In a 2007 article posted on the FBI website, Palmer’s tactics are described as “overzealous domestic security efforts.” In the Bureau’s own words, the raids were a failure of American virtue.

“The “Palmer Raids” were certainly not a bright spot for the young Bureau. But it did gain valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learn important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”

But even some hard-earned lessons are quickly forgotten.

As part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy toward refugees, 3,000 families were separated at the southern border, and innocent children were stripped from their parents and housed in detention centers. This was the latest over-zealous domestic security effort, even more poorly planned than the “Palmer Raids.”

While the public has moved on, drawn to each day’s new crisis, the children have not moved on. Hundreds of children remain trapped in government detention centers. And, as the administration attempts to comply with court orders to undo the damage, the cruel incompetence of its policy is apparent.

“The reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanent orphaned child, and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,” according to Judge Dana M. Sabraw, a federal judge in Southern California, who has ordered the government to restore these families.

This family separation policy was no less than a terrorist act, because it was sure to have an impact far beyond its immediate targets. A government that would so casually tear children from their mothers’ arms seems capable of anything.

And that is enough to give pause to any American citizen with roots in Central and South America. None could be blamed for staying inside, withdrawing from community activities and putting friendships on hold. They may even decide that it is too risky to go to the polls to vote, which could explain a lot.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at misticklaw@gmail.com.

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