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Communist Immigrant Advocates Whom History Erased

Rachel Ida Buff
December 20, 2017

by Rachel Ida Buff

IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE of escalating racism and xenophobia, it sometimes seems as though immigrant rights advocates are up against an unprecedented attack. But white supremacy and apprehension about the foreign-born are nothing new in U.S. history. In a colonial society founded on indigenous displacement and built by the labor of enslaved Africans, Benjamin Franklin fretted about “swarthy,” “ignorant” German migrants creating a “colony of aliens.” As is all too clear in the harsh light of refugee bans, wall-building mania, and curtailing of DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrival), this xenophobic tradition is very much alive and easily mobilized for political ends.

Just as xenophobia marbles American history, so does the transformative work of immigrant rights advocates, continuously countering repressive policy to imagine an emancipatory, inclusive nation. Throughout much of the 20th century, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB), a Popular Front organization with origins in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the communist International Labor Defense (ILD), maintained legal defense for immigrants confronting deportation or denaturalization. With a central office in New York City, the ACPFB responded to crises around the country, often in concert with national civil rights and local migrant organizations. Through the ACPFB, immigrants and their allies created a culture that recognized the rights of the foreign-born, regardless of their legal status or the policies mobilized against them. Surviving protracted McCarthyist repression of leftist organizations, the ACPFB advocated for the rights of Haitian refugees in the 1970s before finally closing its doors in 1982.

The ACPFB operated in diverse migrant communities across the country during a tumultuous fifty years of immigration history. The story of this organization provides a key historical link between different foreign-born cohorts and the policies deployed against them. But this generative story is not widely known. In this way, the McCarthyist repression succeeded: Although they tried and failed to extinguish the group -- the ACPFB saw one of its leaders jailed, lost membership, and was prohibited as a “subversive organization” from testifying in Congress for almost a decade -- the repression of the McCarthy era managed to expunge memory of its existence. Despite the intervening half century, the attacks against organizations like the ACPFB as mere “communist fronts” or “puppets of Moscow,” still broadcast to would-be researchers that there is nothing new to see in its abundant archival records.

Reclaiming the story of the ACPFB is important for contemporary progressive politics, Jewish politics in particular. All too often, when we search for an anti-racist Jewish past, we are offered only a few shining and ephemeral moments: Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King; Jewish lawyers collaborating with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on key civil rights victories. However salutary they are, these moments emerged from sustained Jewish participation in communist-affiliated, anti-racist organizations like the ACPFB. When we lose the longer story, we remember only the shining highlights, not the everyday work of political struggle. This mystifies past successes and makes taking action in our own time harder to fathom.

Many Jews were involved in the ACPFB, as advocates, activists, and defendants. Working-class, native-born Jewish Americans became immigrant-rights advocates. Many more foreign-born Jews benefited from the organization’s legal defense and were drawn into the organization that way. In coalition with civil, immigrant and labor rights advocates across the country, they worked to combat what they called “the deportation terror” and its effects on their communities. Writing in 1987 of his then-fifty year span of work with the ACPFB, first-generation Jewish American Ira Gollobin cited the injunction from Torah to “Have one law for the home-born and for the stranger that sojourns among you” (Lev 24:22) as the guiding spirit of the organization.

As early as the mid-1930s, ACPFB advocates recognized and fought against the dangers of creating a political language that distinguished between "deserving" refugees and "less deserving" migrants. Immigrant-rights advocates consistently recognized historical parallels between the repression faced by successive migrant cohorts. Progressive Jewish labor organizers understood that the struggles of “new immigrants” from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America arriving after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 resembled those of older, European cohorts. Subsequently, as Haitians escaping the despotic, U.S.-backed Duvalier regimes took to shark-infested seas in leaky vessels during the 1970s, the ACPFB drew on this understanding to proclaim them “the Pilgrims of today.”

THE STORY OF RUSSIAN-BORN ROSE CHERNIN exemplifies the ways that much of mid-20th century Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant culture was intertwined with leftist politics. In 1913, at age 12, Chernin departed her home town of Chasnik with her mother and sisters. As was the case with many immigrant families, her father was already in the United States. The family moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, where they opened a dry goods store. Chernin worked night shift at a munitions factory and was able to attend a local high school.

Throughout her life, Chernin worked in leftist political organizing. She studied briefly at the City College of New York, where she was drawn into the ferment of leftist student politics. Subsequently, during the Great Depression, she organized with unemployment councils and on rent strikes in the Bronx, and joined the Communist Party in 1932.

After a brief interlude in Moscow, Chernin and her husband Paul Kuznitz moved to Los Angeles with their young daughters in 1944. There, Chernin became involved with local progressive politics, working for housing desegregation and on the defenses of foreign-born activists targeted for deportation. With Korean American architect David Hyun, Chernin was a co-founder of the Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (LACPFB) in 1950. Both were targeted for deportation on grounds of their political associations. With the assistance of ACPFB lawyers, both eventually beat the charges and were able to remain in the United States. Raised in a household with progressive values and an activist disposition, Rose Chernin’s daughter, Kim, became a well-known feminist activist and author, penning a memoir about Rose, In My Mother’s House.

A lifetime of progressive activism drew Rose Chernin to immigrant-rights advocacy and left her open to targeting for denaturalization and deportation. She recognized that the work of the LACPFB was necessarily multiracial and intersectional. In 1956 she explained the importance working with local Mexican-American organizations to defend workers targeted by Operation Wetback, a program to deport Mexican migrant workers in the Southwest United States:

The fight for the rights of Mexican-Americans is a crucial part of our program, requiring the special attention of trade unions and community organizations. In this respect, we welcome the community action on a broad scale now carried on by Allianza and by the Community Service Organization.

As leader of the LACPFB, Chernin implemented an understanding of what her co-defendant, the Trinidadian-American communist writer Claudia Jones, explained as “the triple oppression,” or what we know today as intersectionality. These advocates recognized that immigrant rights were connected to broader struggles against patriarchy and white supremacy and for economic justice.

AN EARLY LEADER of the ACPFB, Abner Green grew up in a working-class area of Brooklyn. As a teenager, he worked in a waterfront pharmacy near the Brooklyn shipyards, serving a multiracial, international cohort of maritime laborers, many of whom had few rights once on shore. When he assumed leadership of the ACPFB in 1942, the organization had predominantly been focused on the defense of European-born progressive activists, including anti-Nazis. Possibly because of Green’s early experiences on the docks, under his leadership the organization expanded to represent the multiracial, international maritime labor force in their struggles for rights and against deportation.

The ACPFB worked to argue for labor rights on board ship; advocates defended Asian sailors, who were deemed alien on U.S. soil because of exclusion laws. In 1945, the ACPFB joined a coalition of organizations supporting Indonesian sailors refusing to ship out from New York harbor back to their homeland on boats carrying war materiel to Dutch troops fighting against an independence movement in Indonesia. This coalition ultimately prevailed, winning temporary asylum for the sailors in Harlem until they could return safely to Indonesia.

Green’s leadership of the ACPFB until his untimely death in 1959 saw the organization expanding its analysis of repression and white supremacy to explain the situation for Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California (the New York office published Our Badge of Infamy, a petition to the United Nations about the oppression of Mexican Americans in 1959). As a board member of the Civil Rights Congress, Green served a jail sentence for refusing to turn the organization’s records over to the House UnAmerican Activities Conference. These activities were part of Green and the ACPFB’s analysis of white supremacy and antisemitism; they envisioned immigrant rights as creating safety for all foreign-born people, including Jews.

SHAPED BY THE SECULAR, leftist culture of the New York Workmen’s Circle, first- generation Jewish American Ira Gollobin worked as legal counsel for the ACPFB from the mid 1930s until the organization closed in 1982. After 1982, he continued to work in legal advocacy for the foreign-born. As a GI stationed in the Philippines during World War II, Gollobin recognized the U.S. betrayal of the anti-colonial Hukbalahap rebellion in 1945. He led a massive army protest in Manila against U.S. orders to put down the rebels. This anti-colonial education, in turn, informed Gollobin’s immigrant rights advocacy. He maintained a lifelong interest in the Philippines, representing Huk allies William and Celia Pomeroy in their struggle against incarceration in the rightwing, U.S.-backed post-war regime.

During his long tenure in the organization, Gollobin drew on his understanding of capitalism and colonialism, working in multiracial immigrant rights networks around the country. Learning from ACPFB defenses of Latinx migrants like Nicaraguan-American labor organizer Humberto Silex, Gollobin maintained the advocacy relationships with Chicanx organizations that had roots in ACPFB connections to California and the Southwest during the days of the LACPFB and Operation Wetback. Gollobin and Bert Corona, collaborated on key documents like “A Bill of Rights for the Foreign Born.” Such collaborations bridged the popular mobilizations of the 1930s, the fight against McCarthyism in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Familiar with Cold War repression, advocates like Gollobin and Corona recognized the ongoing militarization of state force against migrants and activists as part of class warfare. The relationships they maintained, in turn, shaped the landscape of emergent immigrant rights struggles in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the immediate precedent for the fluorescence of immigrant rights mobilizations in our current time.

Writing in Jewish Life (Jewish Currents’ earlier form) in 1948, Gollobin explained the centrality of immigrant rights to struggles for social justice:

Deportation is the weapon devised early in American history to deport American democracy and to import in its place the alien power of a few financial magnates over the nation.

In this article, Gollobin does not specifically mention Jews or antisemitism. But his publication in Jewish Life, along with what his daughter, Ruth Gollobin, describes as a lifelong engagement with secular Yiddishkait, indicate the bedrock for his long career as an immigrant rights advocate and fighter for justice.

Jewish ACPFB advocates like Chernin, Green and Gollobin worked in a multiracial organization to represent diverse cohorts of immigrants against the deportation terror. They imported Jewish secular as well as religious cultural priorities with them to the work of immigrant rights advocacy. Their work was intersectional and internationalist, influenced by their participation in the broad, communist formations of the Popular Front Era. They recognized that creating justice for the stranger and the home-born alike required working in coalition against the ongoing inequalities perpetrated by global racial capitalism.

Mining the archives of the ACPFB uncovers a lost world of vast riches: historical precedents that speak powerfully to our current moment of xenophobic public policy and white supremacist mobilization. We cannot afford to lose track of this world, because the story of this communist-affiliated, internationalist immigrant rights movement holds too many lessons about defending vulnerable foreign-born organizers; about the vicissitudes of multi-racial coalition work against white supremacy; about creating and fighting for visions of a better world. Along with allies from a host of other progressive organizations, the ACPFB organized intersectionally across space and time, drawing a level of repression that has managed to banish them from the historical record. Reviving these memories reveals a way forward for all of us.

Rachel Ida Buff is professor of history and coordinator of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). She is the editor of Immigrant Rights in the Shadows of Citizenship and the author of Immigration and the Political Economy of Home: West Indian Brooklyn and American Indian Minneapolis, 1945–1992. She is the author of Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century.