Free speech prevails for the L.A. 8

MICHEL SHEHADEH is one of the respondents in the government's civil deportation case against "the L.A. 8."

I HAD NEVER imagined that it could happen, that I could be arrested for merely speaking my mind in the United States. Nor would I have dreamed that 20 of the best years of my life would burn in a legal battle over the 1st Amendment rights of immigrants.

But it did happen. I was 19 years old when I immigrated to the United States in the mid-'70s. Fresh from high school, I was eagerly anticipating the promises of the “American dream.” After growing up under military occupation in Palestine, I was hoping for a new a way of life. Of all the American freedoms I looked forward to, the most cherished to me was that of freedom of speech.

In college, I chose to study magazine journalism, and bit by bit, I delearned the reticence instilled in me during years of occupation and learned to express what was in my mind and heart. Before long, I had an opinion on almost every public issue imaginable — from U.S. involvement in Central America to gay and lesbian issues, from violence in public schools to the death penalty and race relations.

I longed, however, to express myself on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This was personal. I believed that distortions were deeply hurting the Palestinians. And I believed in the American proposition that to be a good citizen is to be positively engaged in public debate and political discourse.

But instead of being rewarded, my family and I were severely punished for this belief.

In January 1987, more than a dozen federal agents, supported by three carloads of local police and a helicopter hovering above my front door in Long Beach, arrested me at gunpoint in an early morning raid. My wife had gone to work. I was taking care of my 3-year-old son, Ibrahim, when the agents barged into my home. As they pushed me into the police car, I was shocked to see that they had left my frantic child behind all alone. Elsewhere, as I was soon to learn, six of my friends were similarly arrested (and another person was picked up a week later), all of them, like me, charged under the McCarran Act with advocating “worldwide communism.” It was baffling.

I felt the same insecurity and fear I felt as a child when confronted by Israeli occupation soldiers at checkpoints. But this was the West Coast, not the West Bank; Southern California, not South Africa.

Federal officials accused me of supporting terrorism, not because I committed violence or even because I planned to (they continually acknowledged that I did not), but simply because our opinions and political activities (such as writing for newspapers, marching in demonstrations and raising money for hospitals) were not popular in Washington.

No prosecutor ever filed criminal charges against us, but the government tried to deport us anyway, supposedly for being members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an accusation that we have repeatedly denied.

As the years passed, every court that examined the evidence ruled in our favor. Both the district and appellate courts concluded that the government had singled us out purely because of our pro-Palestinian beliefs. However, the government stubbornly persisted.

For 20 years, the Justice Department tried every tactic up its sleeve to get the courts to deport us. It persuaded Congress to change laws, charging us retroactively under immigration laws enacted since 1987, including the anti-terrorism provisions of the Patriot Act. It failed. It could not produce a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing on our part, simply because we had never done anything against the law.

Last week, federal immigration Judge Bruce J. Einhorn of Los Angeles dismissed the government’s attempt to deport us — the second time he has done so. He said that “the attenuation of these proceedings is a festering wound on the body of these respondents and an embarrassment to the rule of law.” He noted that the government had missed (by nine months) the deadline for turning over exculpatory evidence.

Despite all that has happened, I have no bitterness. Despite the pain of living in legal limbo for 20 years, I am still on my feet and leading a positive life. I am raising my two boys, now 24 and 14 years old, who are making me more proud every day, and my love is continuing to grow for my wife, who didn’t complain and who stuck with me through the nightmare. I am preparing to enroll in a doctoral program in education. I still work hard to earn the love and respect of my friends and neighbors.

Yes, it has been a case of pain, waste and governmental misconduct. It has been painful to us, our families, friends and communities. It has been a waste of tremendous resources on the government’s part that could have been invested instead in pursuing and catching real terrorists. As for misconduct, how else can you describe 20 years of repression for nothing but a political view?

Difficult as it is to believe, the government might still appeal Einhorn’s latest decision. So far, the government has refused to rule it out. Nevertheless, my hope is that soon my colleagues and I finally will be vindicated, once and for all, and known for who we are: good citizens, loving family people and trusted neighbors. Twenty years is much too long. Enough is enough.

My boys frequently ask me, “When is it going to end, Daddy?” I wish I could tell them, “It’s over now.”