Committee for Justice Archives

Photo: Michel Shehadeh
The United States government has often silenced critics of its domestic and foreign agendas. This silencing campaign is directed most harshly at immigrant dissidents, many of whom have witnessed the brutal impact of U.S. foreign policies in their homelands. Throughout U.S. history, the government has imposed restrictive federal legislation to weed out those immigrants whose political activities challenge U.S. militarism and exploitation.

A prime example is the government’s 1987 attempt to deport seven Palestinian activists and one Kenyan, who were arrested for advocating on behalf of the Palestinian liberation struggle. For almost eighteen years, the case of the Los Angeles Eight—often called the “LA8”—has revealed the political character of federal legislation supposedly aimed at “terrorism.”

Although various courts have established that the LA8 engaged in completely legal acts, the government continues to seek deportation of two defendants, Michel Shehadeh and Khader Hamide. In July 2005, the prosecution will attempt to retroactively apply the USA Patriot Act to argue that eighteen years ago, by distributing pro-Palestine magazines, the LA8 were in fact providing “material support” to terrorists.

The legal battle

During the 1980s, many of the LA8 were local student activists who devoted themselves to organizing around the Palestinian struggle for justice. Not unlike student activists today, they distributed magazines on Palestinian issues, held educational forums and raised money for charities in their home country of Palestine.

On Jan. 26, 1987, the eight were arrested in their Los Angeles homes. Like a scene out of a Hollywood movie, the FBI surrounded Shehadeh’s home before dawn with armored vehicles and helicopters, sent in armed agents, and arrested him at gunpoint while he was watching over his infant son.

Under the pretext of having volumes of secret evidence that would justify the deportation of the eight, the Immigration and Naturalization Service kept the student activists shackled and in solitary confinement at a maximum-security detention facility for nearly a month. The eight were released in February 1988, however, when the immigration court refused to hear the secret evidence. Those documents were soon made available to the attorneys for the LA8, who found that despite nearly three years of extensive FBI surveillance, there was no evidence of illegal activity.

With the original case in shambles, the eight were then charged with violating the now-repealed McCarran-Walter Act for possessing literature advocating “worldwide communism.” The government claimed that the LA8 were representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian Marxist organization that was one of the original members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The government has openly admitted the political nature of the charges. William Webster, the director of the FBI at the time of the arrests, testified before Congress that the eight had not engaged in criminal activity and could not have been legally arrested if they had been U.S. citizens. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, however, made it a deportable offense for an immigrant or naturalized citizen to engage in activities deemed “subversive” by the government. Used during the McCarthy period as a tool of repression against communists and other political activists, the act was repealed by Congress after a federal court declared it unconstitutional in 1989.

Still, the repeal of the McCarran-Walter Act did not put an end to the government’s harassment. It renewed the campaign to deport Shehadeh and Hamide using “anti-terrorist” laws. On several occasions the federal courts ruled that the LA8 had not been involved in criminal or terrorist activities—instead, the government had violated the First Amendment by selectively targeting the eight for constitutionally protected political activities.

Immigrants without constitutional rights

The seesaw legal battle was not over yet. In 1996, Congress denied the federal courts the authority to hear selective enforcement challenges to deportations, effectively legalizing the selective deportation of immigrants. Then, in a major setback for the eight, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that immigrants are not entitled to basic constitutional rights such as free speech, due process, equal protection and protection against selective prosecution. The shocking decision opened the door for immigrants to be deported on the basis of their political views. The LA8 were called back into immigration court where they were barred from arguing the constitutional deficiencies of the government’s case.

Currently, the government is using the case of the LA8 to test the most repressive provisions of the USA Patriot Act. In September of 2004, the government brought charges against Shehadeh and Hamide for the distribution of Palestinian magazines and for raising funds for humanitarian aid in Los Angeles more than twenty years ago. The United States now claims that even though these activities were clearly legal at the time and protected by the First Amendment, they are deportable offenses under the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act allows the deportation of foreign nationals for providing “material support” to any group of two or more that has threatened to use or has used a weapon with the intent to endanger person or property. Under the Patriot Act, it will be Shehadeh and Hamide, not the government, who will have the burden to prove that they did not know their activities would further terrorist activities. At no point will the government need to prove that the distribution of magazines provided “material support” to terrorist activity.

By making it illegal to raise funds for charities in their home countries or to advocate for any political movement abroad, the Patriot Act essentially bars immigrants from the constitutional right to free speech and association. Although immigrants like Shehadeh and Hamide never forget the suffering endured in their homelands, they are told by the U.S. government that they cannot do anything to bring relief to their people.

The upcoming July immigration hearing could have a large impact on the future of the LA8. The government must prove that the Patriot Act can be applied to the case. Prosecutors must also decide whether they will try to use the ancient McCarran-Walter Act.

Popular support for LA8 grows

For eighteen years, a people’s defense movement has stood by the LA8, demanding that all charges be dropped. One activist organization, the Committee for Justice, plans to renew its educational campaign and bring about awareness for this important case, including the launching of a website in support of the LA8, planning of educational forums and organizing support rallies for this important hearing in July.

In a recent interview, Shehadeh described his continued role in the forefront of the solidarity movement for Palestinian national liberation and the movements for peace and justice in the United States. As a key organizer in the mass movement opposing the war and occupation of Iraq, Shehadeh said, “To not do anything … would have been very dehumanizing … The only way that I have felt empowered and have persevered is to feel that I was part of a movement of struggle for the very rights we are being denied.”