Against The Deportation Terror: Organizing For Immigrant Rights In The Twentieth Century

Author: Rachel Ida Buff
Publisher: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018. 282 p.
Reviewer: Nicolás Eilbaum | January 2019

Immigrants facing hostile environments have long turned to collective action to protect themselves and their rights. Organizing in churches and worksites, building political alliances, seeking legal relief in court, crafting compelling stories to sway public opinion—the struggle for immigrant rights is an overlooked but important aspect of the immigrant experience in the United States. As immigrants today face a new wave of hostile rhetoric and policy, it is useful to look back at the record and consider what worked and did not when standing up against the government’s power to exclude non-citizens. Historian Rachel Ida Buff’s Against the Deportation Terror contributes a timely chapter to the unwritten history of immigrant rights activism.

The book presents the story of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB). Cofounded by the ACLU and International Labor Defense in 1933, the ACPFB concentrated its efforts on protecting individual immigrants from deportation in an era largely defined by anti-communist repression. Starting in the 1930s, deportation policy was aimed at undermining labor organizing, often targeting foreign-born labor leaders and activists. After WWII, deportation policy became a weapon of international and domestic counterinsurgency. The ACPFB strove to recast its clients—longshore workers, farmworkers, sailors, writers, political dissidents—as “true Americans” by highlighting their personal stories and contributions. It also attempted to use the anti-totalitarian rhetoric of the Cold War period to question American deportation policy.

By the middle of the century, however, deportation policy would expand its targets. The book identifies so-called Operation Wetback—the mass deportation of Mexican citizens in 1954—as a turning point for both deportation policy and the ACPFB. Operation Wetback popularized the term “illegal alien”—moving away from the attention to “red aliens” characteristic of the Cold War. This transformation in the targets of deportation policy—from the persecution of individual political dissidents to the mass exclusion of an ethnically defined population—challenged the Committee’s work and contributed to its eventual decline. While foreign-born dissidents were suspected of subversion, the media still looked at them as individual people. Mexican migrants, in contrast, were “not represented as individuals with stories” (p. 193). They were framed as an invading mass—making fighting their deportation more difficult.

The Committee also struggled to find its place as non-European immigration rose. While the ACPFB represented an early attempt at multi-racial organizing, the leadership in New York City was largely white and of Jewish Eastern European descent. By the 1970s, though, most migrants were coming from Latin America and Asia. As much as the Committee sought to work with everyone—the Los Angeles office was effective at building bridges between immigrants of different backgrounds—there was still a growing gap between the historical leadership and the population they needed to serve. In the words of Mexican-American organizer Bert Corona, the leadership in NYC was perceived as doing “too little, too late” (p. 50) to work with an increasingly non-white immigrant population.

Less effective in this post-Cold War context, the ACPFB would eventually close its doors and fold back into the ACLU in 1982. Yet several aspects of its organizational model lived on in the revitalized immigrant rights movement that followed in the 1980s and beyond. Among these should be counted the emphasis on connecting migrant and labor rights; the network model of organizing—bringing together smaller organizations nationwide; the search for multiethnic alliances; and particularly the determination to challenge narrow views of what it means to be American. By recognizing the reality of “non-citizen Americans” (p. 51) and creating “narratives of belonging” (p. 137) that echoed migrants’ experience as transnational workers and global citizens, the ACPFB helped inspire an alternative understanding of citizenship that’s relevant to this day.

Against the Deportation Terror contributes an important chapter to the largely hidden history of immigrant rights activism in the United States. While most immigration history focuses on either immigrants themselves or immigration policy, this book sheds light on immigrants and non-immigrants working together to push back against deportation. It speaks to students of both immigration policy and social movements. And it raises critical questions about the strategy and effectiveness of immigration advocacy. No doubt the conditions in which the ACPFB operated have changed—but still much can be learned from its experience. This is the kind of history book that pushes us to build bridges between seemingly distant historical eras. It is the kind of history book that non-historians will find useful. One cannot read it without wondering what the history of the present-day fight against “deportation terror” will read like in the future.

Nicolás Eilbaum, Greensboro College

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