PITTSBURGH – The knock on the door in the middle of the night is not a fantasy for hundreds of thousands of Muslims, people of Middle-Eastern descent and those who express opposition to the Bush war on Iraq and the Bush corporate budget. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been on the job, 24/7, to protect the Bill of Rights, and to mute the draconian impact of the Ashcroft “Patriot Act.”

“Our core values are under attack,” charged Anthony D. Romero, ACLU national executive director, indicting Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department. Romero was the keynote speaker at the Pittsburgh affiliate’s annual meeting, March 23. “What you see after 9/11 is an attack on immigrant rights and an attack on our tolerance and diversity. Start with the USA Patriot Act, a complex 346-page piece of legislation that fundamentally re-wrote the rules of the road for immigrants. Under the new law, the government is able to hold and detain an immigrant for one week without charge. And continue to hold (immigrants) if the Attorney General ‘believes that immigrants pose a national security threat.’”

The ACLU was able to modify the original Patriot Act to set the one-week time limit. But, when Romero met with the FBI in October 2002, the number of immigrants detained under the act had grown to over 1,200. The agency has stopped reporting the number of people it has in custody. In addition, the FBI has questioned 8,000 young Muslim and Arab men.

Then the Ashcroft-led Justice Department closed deportation hearings to members of the press, the public, family and “to anyone who may have an interest as to what our government is doing on the war on terrorism.” The ACLU challenged and partially opened the hearings. In a ruling, Cincinnati-based 6th Federal District Court, Judge Keith decided, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.” In the New Jersey 3rd Circuit, the ACLU failed to convince the judge. The Supreme Court is reviewing both cases.

At the start of the Bush Iraq War, the FBI interrogated 11,000 Iraqi people living in the U.S. In the same week, March 17, the Justice Department announced the detention of Iraqis and people from 20 other countries seeking asylum in the U.S.

“Connect up these dots,” Romero warned, “notwithstanding the rhetoric coming from the President and the Attorney General, and they have created a palpable sense of fear and xenophobia in our country. They have used race and religion as a proxy for suspicion. Our government has taken our Arab and Muslim neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members and de facto turned them into the enemy.”

Since 9/11, the ACLU has experienced explosive national growth, 93,000 new members in 18 months. In Pittsburgh, 60 new lawyers have volunteered their services to the ACLU because of the threats to civil and democratic rights roaring out of the Bush administration.

In February, the ACLU launched a $3.5 million TV ad campaign to defend the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The campaign called, “Keep America Safe and Free,” includes ads running in Vanity Fair, Spin and dozens of cultural publications.

A key grassroots element of the campaign is the mobilization of cities, towns and communities to pass resolutions opposing the “Patriot Act.” As of March 18, 73 communities around the country have enacted such resolutions.

Information, sample resolutions and access to local civil rights legal services are available at the ACLU web site: www.aclu.org.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com

PDF version of ‘ACLU fights Patriot Act’