A Brief History of the U.S. Government’s Targeting of Left-Wing Immigrants

Throughout U.S. history, right-wing forces have used the denial of citizenship to restrict political dissent.

Shaun Richman

(Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

On Sep­tem­ber 8, 1947, fed­er­al agents walked into the mid­town Man­hat­tan office of the Hotel, Restau­rant & Club Employ­ees & Bar­tenders Union Local 6 and arrest­ed its pres­i­dent for being an unde­sir­able alien.” Michael J. Ober­meier had been orga­niz­ing hotel work­ers into a suc­ces­sion of scrap­py inde­pen­dent unions since he arrived in New York as a Ger­man immi­grant around the time of the first World War. By the time of his arrest, he led 27,000 union mem­bers in a pow­er­ful affil­i­ate of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor.

That same day, attor­neys for the CIO’s Trans­port Work­ers Union Local 100 were fight­ing an aggres­sive move to deport John San­to, the union’s Roman­ian-born orga­niz­ing direc­tor. Local press asked the Deputy Com­mis­sion­er of Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion, Thomas Shoe­mak­er, if these actions were a part of a crack­down. Shoemaker’s mild response was that the legal actions were in the nor­mal order of busi­ness.”

The truth is that they were both. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was crack­ing down on union lead­ers it believed to be Com­mu­nists, and it was specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ing activists based upon their immi­gra­tion sta­tus. Dozens of arrests, pros­e­cu­tions and depor­ta­tion pro­ce­dures were ini­ti­at­ed against alleged Com­mu­nist activists in the weeks and months that fol­lowed. It’s a pat­tern that has marked Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for over a cen­tu­ry.

A new book by lawyer and his­to­ri­an Julia Rose Kraut, Threat of Dis­sent: A His­to­ry of Ide­o­log­i­cal Exclu­sion and Depor­ta­tion in the Unit­ed States, com­pre­hen­sive­ly lays out this long his­to­ry of using the denial — and even the threat­ened removal — of cit­i­zen­ship in order to restrict some forms of polit­i­cal action.

A his­to­ry of ide­o­log­i­cal exclu­sion


Restric­tions on nat­u­ral­iza­tion coin­cid­ed with the advent of par­ti­san pol­i­tics, accord­ing to Kraut. Arti­cle I of the Con­sti­tu­tion directs Con­gress to estab­lish an uni­form rule of Nation­al­iza­tion,” and the first one that Con­gress set, in 1790, allowed white for­eign­ers to become cit­i­zens after just two years of res­i­den­cy. This lib­er­al pol­i­cy made the Unit­ed States a haven for polit­i­cal refugees through­out the 1790s, and they became active in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The Irish flee­ing British rule and French flee­ing the twists and turns of their rev­o­lu­tion tend­ed to sup­port Thomas Jefferson’s new Demo­c­ra­t­ic-Repub­li­can clubs that were crit­i­cal of the Fed­er­al­ists’ dri­ve for a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

By the end of the decade, the Fed­er­al­ists were frus­trat­ed by the leg­isla­tive intran­si­gence of Jefferson’s par­ty and with its many pub­li­ca­tions that were crit­i­cal of them. Pres­i­dent John Adams, a Fed­er­al­ist, was fac­ing a tough re-elec­tion and itch­ing for war with France. In 1798, he signed the noto­ri­ous Sedi­tion Act into law, which made it a crime to pub­lish mate­r­i­al crit­i­cal of the gov­ern­ment, or the pres­i­dent. Less well remem­bered is that the Fed­er­al­ists also updat­ed the Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Act to great­ly increase the years of res­i­den­cy need­ed to become a cit­i­zen, and passed an Alien Friends Act, which gave the pres­i­dent the pow­er to deport non-cit­i­zens that he deemed a threat to the nation’s secu­ri­ty.

Most of us were taught in high school that the Unit­ed States ulti­mate­ly sur­vived this ear­ly test of our democ­ra­cy. After all, when Adams lost to Jef­fer­son in 1800, he peace­ful­ly trans­ferred pow­er, estab­lish­ing a norm. The Sedi­tion Act expired and Adams nev­er used his expul­sion pow­ers under the Alien Friends Act. Read­ers of this pub­li­ca­tion, on the oth­er hand, are all too aware that a reliance on norms makes for a vul­ner­a­ble democ­ra­cy, and a hard­en­ing of the line between cit­i­zen and res­i­dent alien leaves the lat­ter pop­u­la­tion vul­ner­a­ble to per­se­cu­tion. (Indeed, the rea­son Adams nev­er had to use his depor­ta­tion pow­ers, Kraut shows us, is that many of Adams’ tar­get­ed ene­mies self-deport­ed before he had the chance to do it by force.)

In the cen­tu­ry that fol­lowed, Con­gress con­tin­ued to make it dif­fi­cult for immi­grants to nat­u­ral­ize, but pri­mar­i­ly for rea­sons of reg­u­lat­ing the work­force, cou­pled with racist exclu­sion (most­ly direct­ed at Asian work­ers). Kraut does not neglect this scorched under­side of our nation­al melt­ing pot myth, but the sub­jects of ide­o­log­i­cal exclu­sion and depor­ta­tion” are per­haps less well under­stood — even by those on the Left — than the fact that our immi­gra­tion laws are inher­ent­ly racist.

The 20th cen­tu­ry dri­ve to deny and revoke cit­i­zen­ship of dis­si­dents began with a bang. When Pres­i­dent William McKin­ley was shot to death in 1901 his assas­sin, Leon Czol­go­sz, claimed to be an anar­chist who drew his inspi­ra­tion from a lec­ture he attend­ed by Emma Gold­man. Although Czo­golz was a nat­ur­al-born cit­i­zen, anar­chism was still viewed as a for­eign ide­ol­o­gy and Con­gress respond­ed by vot­ing to ban anar­chists or any­one who advo­cat­ed the over­throw by force or vio­lence of the Gov­ern­ment of the Unit­ed States,” lan­guage that in one form or anoth­er remains in fed­er­al immi­gra­tion code.

Gold­man was made noto­ri­ous by the assas­si­na­tion that she nei­ther called for nor con­doned. But she was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and her writ­ings and pub­lic speech­es on anar­chism and work­ers’ rights, not to men­tion her advo­ca­cy of free love and con­tra­cep­tion, made her the bête noire of the law and order types who want­ed to stamp out crim­i­nal anar­chy.” The bar­ri­er to kick­ing Emma Gold­man out of the coun­try, aside from the yawn­ing gulf between philo­soph­i­cal anar­chism and advo­cat­ing real acts of vio­lence, was that she was a U.S. cit­i­zen by mar­riage.

Obsessed with so-called unde­sir­able aliens, Con­gress in 1906 passed a law that for the first time allowed for the denat­u­ral­iza­tion of a per­son who obtained cit­i­zen­ship through fraud or mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Immi­gra­tion offi­cials almost imme­di­ate­ly began inves­ti­gat­ing Goldman’s estranged hus­band. Find­ing that he had mis­rep­re­sent­ed his age in his appli­ca­tion for cit­i­zen­ship, he was denat­u­ral­ized. Gold­man lost her own cit­i­zen­ship as a result and spent 10 years restrict­ing her trav­el, well-aware of how vul­ner­a­ble she now was to depor­ta­tion. She was even­tu­al­ly purged in 1919, along with 248 oth­er for­eign rad­i­cals, and deport­ed to Rus­sia dur­ing the first Red Scare that fol­lowed the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion and (at the time) the largest strike wave in U.S. his­to­ry.

Anti-com­mu­nism would ani­mate most changes to immi­gra­tion law, and much of fed­er­al law enforce­ment, in the decades that fol­lowed. The Depart­ment of Justice’s Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (fore­run­ner to today’s FBI) that was cre­at­ed to inves­ti­gate poten­tial­ly fraud­u­lent immi­gra­tion paper­work in 1908 trans­formed into a domes­tic spy agency focused on going after under­ground Com­mu­nists in the 1920s. In 1940, Con­gress again revised immi­gra­tion and nat­u­ral­iza­tion code, and passed the Smith Act, mak­ing it a fed­er­al crime to know­ing­ly or will­ful­ly advo­cate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, neces­si­ty, desir­abil­i­ty, or pro­pri­ety of over­throw­ing or destroy­ing any gov­ern­ment in the Unit­ed States by force or vio­lence,” or to belong to an orga­ni­za­tion that did. This includ­ed pub­lish­ing, pub­lic speak­ing and orga­niz­ing. The Smith Act fur­ther required for­eign nation­als to be fin­ger­print­ed and to sign an affi­davit regard­ing the date and place of entry to the Unit­ed States, the intend­ed length of stay, the activ­i­ties he or she expect­ed to be engaged in, crim­i­nal record (if any) and oth­er infor­ma­tion that the Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice (INS) might request.

This 20th cen­tu­ry sedi­tion law was draft­ed in response to the INS’s inabil­i­ty to deport Har­ry Bridges, the long­shore work­ers leader who led the 1934 strike that snarled ship­ping up and down the West Coast and led to a gen­er­al strike in San Fran­cis­co. Although Bridges’ denied belong­ing to the Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CP), he was seen as a threat to com­merce and nation­al secu­ri­ty. Bridges, who emi­grat­ed from Aus­tralia in 1920, was vul­ner­a­ble to depor­ta­tion and the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee pressed the INS to begin depor­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings — under the old­er Anar­chist Exclu­sion lan­guage — in 1938. A June 1939 Supreme Court deci­sion, Streck­er vs. Kessler, nar­row­ly ruled that the exclu­sion lan­guage could only be applied to some­one who was an active mem­ber of an orga­ni­za­tion that fit its def­i­n­i­tion of one that advo­cat­ed the vio­lent or force­ful over­throw of the gov­ern­ment. Bridges was def­i­nite­ly not an active mem­ber of the CP at the time, denied ever hav­ing been a mem­ber, and the pros­e­cu­tion could nev­er prove oth­er­wise. He walked out a free man.

The new law added 10 years of retroac­tiv­i­ty to the affi­davit required in a nat­u­ral­iza­tion appli­ca­tion, regard­ing mem­ber­ship in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion. This is why the infa­mous ques­tion in con­gres­sion­al hear­ings and oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions was, Are you now or have you ever been a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty?” It was a trap. Answer hon­est­ly, and you could go to jail under the Smith Act. Lie, and you could be denat­u­ral­ized and deport­ed under the Nation­al­i­ty Act. Michael J. Ober­meier, the New York hotel work­ers leader, was one of 41 Com­mu­nist labor orga­niz­ers arrest­ed in the ini­tial crack­down of 1947. By 1949, Kraut writes, the num­ber had swelled to 135” and the Attor­ney Gen­er­al, Tom C. Clark, main­tained a list of 2,100 for­eign Com­mu­nists who he want­ed to deport.

Are you now or have you ever been…”


Michael J. Ober­meier is not one of the sto­ries that Kraut tells in Threat of Dis­sent. He’s my research sub­ject. Over a decade since fil­ing my first Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests, I’ve been study­ing his FBI file and those of his com­rades. With­out know­ing the com­plete dark his­to­ry that Kraut’s book com­pelling­ly brings into the light, it was clear to me that the FBI was pri­or­i­tiz­ing inves­ti­ga­to­ry resources based upon the immi­gra­tion sta­tus of its tar­gets. Ober­meier was fin­gered in 1942 for work he was doing among Ger­man-Amer­i­cans in sup­port of the Allied war effort. With­in two years, FBI agents had inter­viewed a dozen ex-com­rades and had dug up details on numer­ous trips in and out of the coun­try in the years between his first arrival in the coun­try and his (unsuc­cess­ful) 1939 nat­u­ral­iza­tion appli­ca­tion, and were build­ing the case to deport him.

By con­trast, the FBI began inves­ti­gat­ing Obermeier’s long-time orga­niz­ing part­ner, Jay Rubin, in late 1943. Pres­i­dent of the NY Hotel Trades Coun­cil, Rubin was allied with a num­ber of con­ser­v­a­tive AFL craft unions and main­tained sta­ble bar­gain­ing rela­tion­ships with­in the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try. More impor­tant­ly, from the FBI’s per­spec­tive, he became a nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen in 1929. He was added to the Secu­ri­ty Index, a list of key indi­vid­u­als to be arrest­ed if the gov­ern­ment ever decid­ed to com­plete­ly sup­press the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. But the FBI most­ly kept tabs on him, and only briefly con­sid­ered denat­u­ral­iz­ing him in the late 1950s when a cou­ple of agents con­vinced them­selves that Rubin had only pre­tend­ed to quit the CP in 1950.

Gertrude Lane, the Gen­er­al Orga­niz­er (and, lat­er, Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er) of the Hotel, Restau­rant & Club Employ­ees & Bar­tenders Union Local 6, was a nat­ur­al born cit­i­zen and grad­u­ate of Hunter Col­lege. Despite evi­dence that she served on the CP’s Nation­al Com­mit­tee, she was dis­missed as not cur­rent­ly of suf­fi­cient inter­est” to add to the Bureau’s Secu­ri­ty Index. Instead, the New York office mild­ly col­lect­ed her birth, edu­ca­tion and vot­er records, known alias­es and where­abouts — and pas­sive­ly accept­ed tips from snitch­es.

As with the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts of 1798, we’re taught in school that the post­war Red Scare was a test of our democ­ra­cy that we ulti­mate­ly passed. After all, the over­reach of the Smith Act was even­tu­al­ly blunt­ed by the Supreme Court, and today, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty can oper­ate in the open as a legal orga­ni­za­tion once again. But people’s lives were destroyed in the process, and immi­grants were sin­gled out for tar­get­ed harass­ment. More impor­tant­ly, the prin­ci­ples of ide­o­log­i­cal exclu­sion and denat­u­ral­iza­tion are still enshrined in the law under the exclu­sive purview of the exec­u­tive branch.

A good chunk of the lat­ter half of Threat of Dis­sent is focused on the Nixon and Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tions’ efforts to deny entry visas to sci­en­tists and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als who belonged to social­ist or antifas­cist orga­ni­za­tions, or who sup­port­ed Pales­tin­ian state­hood or opposed South African apartheid. This includes the ridicu­lous­ly pet­ty efforts to deny the ex-Bea­t­les mem­ber John Lennon a visa renew­al because of his pub­lic oppo­si­tion to the war against Viet­nam, and to kick the famed actor Char­lie Chap­lin out of the coun­try for thumb­ing his nose at the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee. These cas­es,” writes Kraut, served as a reminder of the impor­tance of dis­cre­tion and of who holds that dis­cre­tion to deter­mine the fate of for­eign­ers seek­ing to enter the Unit­ed States, as well as the poten­tial for abuse of dis­cre­tion under the law.”

Indeed, that exec­u­tive dis­cre­tion is at the heart of Pres­i­dent Trump’s so-called Mus­lim Ban.” While obvi­ous­ly racist in his inten­tions, his exec­u­tive order drew its author­i­ty from Red Scare-era ide­o­log­i­cal exclu­sion laws and the flim­sy argu­ment that vis­i­tors from major­i­ty-Mus­lim nations are pre­dis­posed towards ter­ror­ism. Now con­sid­er Trump’s recent efforts to declare the loose net­work of antifas­cist orga­niz­ers a domes­tic ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion.” He wants to tap into the sur­veil­lance and civ­il for­fei­ture pow­ers afford­ed him under the PATRI­OT Act (which Democ­rats vot­ed to renew dur­ing Trump’s term). Just wait until Stephen Miller tells him he can also deport antifas­cists who aren’t nat­ur­al-born cit­i­zens!

If Joe Biden is able to defeat Trump in Novem­ber, pro­gres­sives should treat his pres­i­den­cy with the same lev­el of fear and loathing as we did the Trump and Bush admin­is­tra­tions. The basic demo­c­ra­t­ic rights of cit­i­zen­ship should not be the play­things of pres­i­dents. When we are final­ly able to turn our atten­tion towards shut­ting down Stephen Miller’s tod­dler con­cen­tra­tion camps and estab­lish­ing a path­way to legal cit­i­zen­ship,” we also have to insist upon irrev­o­ca­ble cit­i­zen­ship as a right.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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