Ten years after their January 1987 arrest, the Los Angeles Eight are still on trial. While the courts continue to debate the case, the seven Palestinians and one Kenyan  continue to face separation from their families and homelands and the prospect of forced deportation. Initially charged under the McCarthy-era McCarran-Walter Act — provisions not used since the anti-Communist attacks of the 1950s — the eight were accused of being members of, or supporting, an organization that advocated “world communism” — specifically the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), one of the constituent organizations of the PLO. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) quickly dropped the political charges against the six non-US residents whom it then accused of technical visa violations, and charged the two permanent US residents with associating with an organization (the PFLP) that advocates the destruction of property. The technical charges advanced against the six included working without authorization at a convenience store, and not taking enough university credits on a student visa. Initially, public outrage was widespread. Supporters of the LA 8 expanded nationally to include immigrant rights, civil rights and minority rights groups, as well as related organizations. The government’s expectation that the eight would be isolated because of their involvement with Palestinian issues was miscalculated. Soon after the arrests, a key government document was leaked to the defense team and the media. The work of an inter-agency task force, which included the INS, the FBI, the Justice Department and others, the document outlined a contingency plan to deal with threats to US national security. It called for large-scale detentions of nationals from seven Middle Eastern countries (six Arab countries plus Iran), imprisonment in a Louisiana detention facility and use of “technical” visa violations to supplement the primary political charges. While the deportation hearings themselves wound through immigration court, a coalition of Arab-American and other organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s efforts to deport the eight. Dubbed ADC vs. Meese for the Reagan administration attorney general, the name has changed several times to reflect changing administrations, new presidents and new attorneys general. Today, ADC vs. Reno remains in the Los Angeles Federal District Court, with parts of it on appeal to the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. Phyllis Bennis interviewed David Cole, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights/Georgetown University, who, along with Marc Van Der Hout and Leonard Weinglass of the National Lawyers Guild, has led the defense team for most of the last ten years.
Where does the case now stand?
There are two tracks in the case: The INS’s deportation proceedings are being held in immigration court. Our challenge to the constitutionality of the immigration proceedings goes on in federal district court. The immigration proceedings have been temporarily halted because the federal courts have found that we have a strong case that the government selectively targeted our clients in retaliation for engaging in political activities that are protected under the First Amendment. Given this, the deportation effort is unconstitutional.
The INS singled out our clients for deportation because of their peaceful political activities in support of the PFLP, but the INS did not seek to deport other non-citizens who supported organizations such as the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujahideen, anti-Castro Cubans, RENAMO in Mozambique — all groups that would qualify as “terrorist organizations” under the immigration law. Given that the government singled out our clients for the same activities, and because those activities were protected under the First Amendment, the federal judge ruled that the deportation proceedings should not go forward. There is currently a preliminary injunction in place barring all deportation efforts.
It is extremely rare for anyone to use a selective prosecution defense against a deportation case. We have gotten this far because the government itself admitted selective prosecution. Former FBI Director William Webster openly stated, very early on, that after a lengthy investigation, the FBI had concluded that the eight had not engaged in or supported any terrorist activity. Only then, when they could not prove any kind of criminal activity, did they hand the case over to the INS for deportation of the defendants. Webster testified under oath to Congress that the FBI found no evidence of terrorism, and that if the eight had been US citizens there would have been no basis for their arrest.
Subsequently the INS has been required to release to the court a whole range of documents indicating their basis for selecting our clients for deportation. Those documents show that despite 24-hour-a-day surveillance, all they could report was involvement in demonstrations, carrying anti-US or anti-Israel placards and planning and helping out at fundraising events for humanitarian causes. The FBI also claimed they were distributing pro-Palestinian literature.
Did the government claim they had evidence of planning or discussion of violence?
These cases were initially brought by the Justice Department of the Reagan administration. They have now gone through the Reagan administration, the Bush administration and the first term of the Clinton administration. To what do you attribute the government’s commitment to deport these eight people?
First, it’s impossible to say why these particular people, of all the politically active Palestinians in the United States during that time, were singled out. I think the INS, once the care arose, decided they would use it as a test case. They saw that if they could deport these individuals on such evidence, they would establish a very effective tool that could be used against disfavored political groups. They wan the power to go after people without having to demonstrate they engaged in or supported any kind of illegal activity.
The language sounds familiar to that of the anti-terrorism bill that speaks of criminal penalties, beyond just deportation penalties, for similar activities. Is there a connection?
The anti-terrorism bill of 1996 extends the principles of our case to citizens. it makes it a federal crime for anyone in the United States, citizen or immigrant, to provide lawful humanitarian aid to any group designated by the secretary of state as a terrorist organization. That provision has not yet taken effect literally, because the secretary of state has not yet formally designated which groups are to be considered terrorist, but the government is apparently planning to do so relatively soon. The government is already using the LA 8 case as a test for the new anti-terrorism law. In the currently pending appeal of our case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the government has argued that there should be no First Amendment protection for people who provide even humanitarian support to a “terrorist” organization. Their argument is that anyone who supports a terrorist organization, even if only sending supplies to a hospital run by that organization, is ultimately supporting the organization’s terrorist activities, if only by freeing up resources for terrorism.
For example, if this law had been in effect in the 1980s, anyone giving money to the African National Congress could have been facing prison sentences. It is a very extreme expansion of government power, and a very dangerous precedent. The government is using the LA 8 case to establish the groundwork for that new law. it is clear how discriminatory the law will be. During a hearing that touched on the selective enforcement issue, we put a number of people on the stand, non-citizens who had supported various organization that carried out violent activities, in much more direct ways than out clients were charged. For example, Edgar Chamorro, a former Nicaraguan Contra leader, testified to his long history of orchestrating and carrying out Contra attacks. The CIA had provided him with travel documents and support for his movements in and out of the US. He testified that he was threatened with deportation only after he told the CIA that he would no longer carry out these activities.
There are others, specifically other Palestinians such as Imad Hamad, who face deportation charges for allegedly supporting carious PLO factions and so on. Is this something that the government sees as means of undermining support for the Palestinian cause?
They have been fairly explicit about it. They wanted the anti-terrorism bill to cut off funding to groups whose activities run contrary to their policies. It is a very powerful tool. In 1987, the filing of the charges in this case had an incredible chilling effect on the willingness of members of the Palestinian community to support humanitarian projects in the Occupied Territories and Lebanon. Everyone knew that the government had thrown these individuals in jail, and was seeking their deportation simply because they were involved in the Palestinian struggle. Our clients were charged with distributing literature and raising money to support hospitals, clinics, day care centers and schools in the occupied territories and in Lebanon. The federal court judge in Los Angeles eventually ruled that there was clear evidence that the government had in fact selectively — and therefore unlawfully — applied the deportation law. The government appealed against, and got another chance to provide additional information. We went back to District Court, where the government introduced 10,000 additional pages of documents. Though few of the documents had anything to do with our clients, the government hoped to create a record that showed the court how terrible our clients had been, and how extensive their involvement had been in the group. The District Court responded to that, in April 1996, by reviewing all the evidence and rejecting the government’s arguments. The government has now appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In that appeal they argue that no one has a First Amendment right to support the lawful activities of groups that are also engaged in unlawful activities. They have yet to appeal the decision that immigrants have the same First Amendment rights as citizens. They have stated, however, in their various briefs that they may appeal that in the future.
What are the most recent developments?
In September 1996, Congress passed the illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, probably the most anti-immigrant piece of legislation since the McCarran-Walter Act. One particularly pernicious aspect of this legislation is the “court-stripping” section, which seeks to deprive immigrants of a whole range of immigration actions. Within two weeks of the passing of this law, the government moved to dismiss our case against them. Arguing that a provision in the new law deprives the court of jurisdiction to hear selective enforcement claims, the government asserts that even though the court has found that our clients’ First Amendment rights have been violated, the court has no jurisdiction to hear the case.
If the federal case were to be dismissed under those government claims, would the eight be subject to deportation?
Yes. The government wants the court to dismiss the federal lawsuit that we filed challenging the deportation procedure, and submit our clients to the immigration proceeding, in which they are not allowed to raise their selective enforcement claims at all. The government is arguing that immigrants facing deportation in these circumstances should not have access to the courts. This is ironic, because ultimately the courts in our system are supposed to protect those who cannot protect themselves otherwise. Immigrants are the perfect example of a group which cannot protect itself through the political process, because they do not have the vote.
The legal permutations of this case are extraordinarily complicated. Besides recognizing that the case is still going on, how should we respond to a case that is now ten years old?
It is important to note that the case has not gone away. The government is pursuing this case today as vigorously as it was ten years ago. Under the Clinton administration, much as with earlier administrations, the government is making a very extreme argument about the rights of immigrants, as well as the First Amendment rights of citizens. The progression of the case is one that should be of concern to everyone. This case demonstrates the old adage that first they will go after the group deemed the most vulnerable, and then the next, and then eventually they will come to pick up you and me. The government has made an argument that, if accepted by the courts, will deprive all of us of First Amendment rights. It is important to monitor this case, to put as much pressure as possible on the Clinton administration to drop the case. Letters should be sent to Attorney General Reno and the INS Commissioner Doris Meissner urging them to drop the proceedings. The government has been making these arguments without success for ten years. We win a decision, they change the law. We need to keep up the pressure, and see it through to what I still believe will be a successful end.
 The LA 8 are Khader Hamide, Julie Mangai, Michel Shehadeh, Ayman Obeid, Amjad Obeid, Beshar Amer, Naim Sharif and Iyad Barakat.