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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



ACLU executive director on the fight of the group's life
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

This article shared 492 times since Wed Mar 8, 2017
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For the past 16 years, American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) Executive Director Anthony Romero has been at the helm of one of the hardest-working and effective nonprofits in the country, particularly in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ civil rights.

As a child of Puerto Rican immigrants who themselves faced discrimination, the openly gay Romero learned that every laborious step of the most uphill battle is worthwhile if, at the summit, there lies a just and equal society.

Since Jan. 20, that incline has steepened to a sheer clear face.

The executive, legislative and, if Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, judicial branches of government will be under the control of the Republican Party.

At least for the near future, the only way to confront the Trump agenda is in the courts. For the ACLU, that means another day, another executive order and the number of files added to Romero and his colleague's desk inboxes are towering.

Still, Romero has called the last several weeks "breathless and agonizing—but also exhilarating."

The weekend after Trump's inauguration, the ACLU reported that it had received more than $24 million in online donations and Romero intends to put every penny to good use. On Feb. 8, he announced an "expansion plan to fight Trump's policies" which includes building up the ACLU's state offices, its grassroots member mobilization program and the hiring of new attorneys and staff members in a "full throttle response to whatever lies ahead over the next four years."

Windy City Times: A new executive order concerning immigration is supposed to be coming from the Trump administration this week. What are you expecting out of this one?

Anthony Romero: We've heard privately from different sources about what it might look like. I don't want to speculate or even tip our hand but, obviously, they're trying to fix some of the major constitutional problems with the first executive order and especially how it was rolled out. We don't think there's any way to rewind and remedy the unconstitutional nature of the executive order. Even if they try to tinker at the edges, we still think that there'll be a number of legal challenges that we'll be able to bring.

WCT: Trump says he is trying to deport criminals only but the immigration order allows a very wide latitude to Immigration Customs Enforcement ( ICE ) agents to target anyone it suspects of committing a crime or if defrauding the United States. How do you fight that?

AR: It's going to be case-by-case. It's going to be very fact- and labor-intensive. The ratcheting up of the Department of Homeland Security's deportation and detention machinery is the one policy area that could have the greatest impact on millions of lives in the U.S. It's the one with the greatest impact on real people. We're already coming off a moment when the Obama deportation and detention machinery was in full force. Towards the end of his term, he took his foot off the gas pedal but, still, in his tenure President Obama detained and deported the largest number of undocumented immigrants of any modern president. So, Trump inherits a Department of Homeland Security that we think is already overly zealous.

This new executive order and the efforts to reengage local law enforcement officials as extensions of immigration enforcement is deeply concerning. To challenge it, we have to understand the facts and circumstances of individual raids, whether or not they are using race or national origin as a basis for suspicion and whether or not they're clipping lawful permanent residents or US citizens in the dragnet searches and arrests.

It will be a lot like the work we did in Arizona when Sheriff Joe Arpaio was scaling up his detention/deportation efforts. The work was very fact-intensive, understanding the facts around any of the stops, raids, detentions or deportations and then fashioning individual lawsuits to address likely unconstitutional law enforcement practices.

WCT: There is a history of abusive treatment of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants at ICE facilities. What kind of safety net is there for LGBTQ people who are caught up in these sweeps?

AR: The conditions of confinement of individuals in immigration detention has been one of our long-standing concerns. You take any of the groups that are in vulnerable positions in general society and then you lock them up in some of these privately owned immigrant detention centers and you cut-off access to the outside world, to lawyers and to the press and those can be environments that are ripe for abuse.

Part of what we've been doing is to mobilize our local offices to both track and be able to access local immigration and detention centers. We have an office in every state so we are able to deploy our staff to be engaged and ready to deal with the concerns that come out of these immigration detention centers. But they're largely black boxes and there's not a lot of scrutiny of them. Getting access to them and knowing the facts on the ground will require a lot of advocacy and tenacious litigation.

WCT: You have called this period in history "the fight of our lives." In over 16 years at the ACLU, is this the most challenging time you can remember?

AR: The constitutional crisis presented by the Trump administration is on a scale that we haven't seen in the last, maybe, 50 years—since the Red Scare and the height of the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, there were very significant changes in our laws and policies that have to do with national security and immigration but, under the policies of the Trump administration, you're talking about an impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

After 9/11, several thousand immigrants were deported, almost 1,000 individuals were detained at Guantanamo, you had ubiquitous and expansive surveillance laws enacted. With the Patriot Act, you had the NSA [National Security Agency] unleashed, but by and large, the lives of ordinary Americans were not changed or altered in a palpable way.

But, if the policies of the Trump administration get implemented, there's the detention or deportation of three million undocumented immigrants with criminal records and as many as 13 million without criminal records. It would be a massive upheaval to the lives of individuals and the fabric of our communities. With the shutting down of Planned Parenthood clinics that serve low-income men and women, you have a direct impact on the everyday health of men and women all across this country. The ban of Muslims from entering the country will impact hundreds of thousands of people. So, the human carnage that is possible if these policies get implemented is on a scale that we haven't seen.

The policies and proposed changes in our laws go to the heart of how people experience their freedoms and their basic rights. If you begin to roll back protections for LGBT individuals that we've been able to secure over the last ten or so years, it will have an impact on everyone's lives. What's most troubling is that, in most of these issues, whether women's, reproductive, immigrant's, LGBT or civil rights and racial justice, even though we had setbacks over the last 10 years, there were places where we had made progress. Now we're looking at a wholesale loss of that progress.

WCT: As a gay man and also as the son of immigrants, is this a personal fight?

AR: All of us bring our personal lives and experiences to our work. Certainly, it's one of the motivating drives for me doing the work I've done throughout my career. Ultimately, I am among the privileged, the blessed and fortunate. I also understand that discrimination was alive and well when I was growing up. My parents confronted it. I confronted it as a young gay man and many people still live in fear and with the weight and stigma of discrimination and unfairness.

It's part of the motivating force for me and for others at the ACLU. We really see that we have a responsibility to make a difference and it's humbling. We've seen a massive outpouring of support since the election. People really are counting on us and we have an enormous responsibility to do the most good that we possibly can.

WCT: The ACLU was prepared as early as the summer of 2016 for some of Trump's policies. Are you similarly prepared for the First Amendment Defense Act ( FADA ) should it be voted into law by a Republican Congress?

AR: We are going to fight tooth and nail any effort to use religion as a legal excuse for discrimination. Our nation's non-discrimination laws have to be applied fairly across the board and, if you carve out too many exceptions, the effect of these non-discrimination laws will be nil.

We've been looking at the whole question of religious refusals and the use of religion as a 'guise to condone discrimination. We think there are very good cases that we have brought and will continue to bring. Certainly, if any effort to use religion as a basis for discrimination finds its way into a bill before Congress or an executive order, we'll be ready to challenge it.

WCT: Transgender rights are under attack through state bathroom bills and with the recent recension of Title IX federal guidelines. How do you intend to approach this front in the battle for LGBT rights?

AR: The struggle for transgender rights is the next step in the struggle for LGBT equality and it's essential that we not leave their rights behind. This is an indivisible, unified fight for formal equality for all individuals in the LGBT community and there is nothing more fundamental for the ACLU than issues around the autonomy of the individual. I get to decide what I speak, what God I worship ( if any at all ), who I associate with and what gender I identify with. I decide and not some bureaucrat in a government office, not some clerk. It's about the full actualization of the human experience being in the hands of the individual.

At the same time, transgender rights have also been used as a way to subvert or derail the progress we've made on LGBT issues. So, it's important for the transgender community and for the universality of these rights for all of us and I think ultimately we can win. We've made enormous progress in transgender rights even in the last couple of years. With the Gavin Grimm Supreme Court case, we have an opportunity to talk to not just the eight justices of the Supreme Court but the hearts and minds of the American people.

WCT: Trump has also attacked First Amendment by calling the media "the enemy of the American people."

AR: I think the protections around a free press are robust and I even think that even conservative justices will serve as an important bulwark against any effort to encroach upon the freedom of the press. The most troubling part of President Trump's comments is the impact it has on his followers. The fact that we would have any American—no less than the American president—believe that the press is the enemy of the American people is a breathtaking moment. Clearly the Republicans in Mr. Trump's party need to find their spine.

The ability to defend the free press and basic First Amendment rights are fundamentally American and clearly span the partisan divide. That's why the hypocrisy of some of the news outlets on the Conservative side has been equally startling. Leadership also has to come from the Conservative members of the press to depoliticize the defense of the press and Freedom of Speech.

WCT: Trump has pledged to do away with the Johnson Amendment prohibiting nonprofits from engaging in political campaigns or endorsing candidates. Where do you stand on this proposal?

AR: The ACLU generally believes that the best speech is more speech but the Johnson Amendment protected the integrity of religious institutions. Part of what is especially challenging is that our religious institutions have been generally engaged with public policy. Black churches were very much engaged in the civil rights movement. We don't lack for vigorous political discourse even within and among our religious institutions, but to unleash them to play a much more direct role in partisan politics will ultimately serve to undercut their independence and legitimacy. When we talk about the Johnson Amendment, it's not about the secularist versus the religious community, but a debate within the religious community about how to ensure one's independence and latitude from government restrictions.

Once religious institutions are unleashed in direct partisan politics, we're going to find much more regulation of their activities. Just like you find much more government regulation in political campaigns in terms of the scrutiny of donors, campaign finance rules, disclosure and registration requirements. Part of the reason religious freedom has flourished in this country is because we've preserved that domain as a place where government regulation should not tread heavily. I fear that doing away with the Johnson Amendment is just an invitation for further government regulation at some point of religious entities.

WCT: How will the support the ACLU has received factor into your plan for a grassroots mobilization and community solidarity in the fight moving forward?

AR: The public support has been incredible because it shows that there are people who care about these issues and they're willing to take action—to join the ACLU, go to the protests and demand town halls with their elected officials. It's about the vibrancy of the political process and of we the people holding the government accountable. That gives us hope.

The two tactics we're trying to employ right now are litigation, because the courts are the core bulwark against any encroachment and erosion of right, and also people power—the deployment of individuals in protest, lobbying and in petitioning their government—that's going to be essential.

We want to take a page out of the NRA [National Rifle Association], which was incredibly effective in deploying its membership on key policy and legislative goals for the organization. Part of what we're seeing is a renaissance of grassroots activism, a lot of it spontaneous, that can be directed and shaped. Since the ACLU is not a single issue or single constituency organization, we can serve as an umbrella for many of these issues and platforms. We work on immigrant's women's, abortion, Muslim, LGBT rights and racial justice and part of what people are seeing is that these rights are all connected.

The folks who turned out at the airports [to protest the Trump travel ban] were not just refugees and Muslims, they were ordinary Americans who recognized that this was a struggle for the rights of everyone and I think that's a case we are uniquely positioned to bolster and deepen. This is a very exciting time where it's not just a small group or lawyers or lobbyists who care about these issues. This is top on the minds of many Americans. It is our responsibility to find a way to help channel and strengthen the defense of our rights and liberties.

For more about the ACLU, visit . For more about the ACLU of Illinois, visit

This article shared 492 times since Wed Mar 8, 2017
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