Experts face off at JCRC forum on civil liberties

Commenting on what he considered the gross deprivation of civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, attorney Robert Rubin pointed out an irony to Jewish audience members.

"Spain, famous for being the home of the Inquisition, is refusing to deport suspected Al Qaida members because they fear the United States' recent track record on civil liberties," Rubin told about 40 board members of the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council during a forum last week.

Rubin, the legal director of the San Francisco-based Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, was joined during the discussion by Abraham Sofaer, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Despite the opposing political stances of the two speakers — Rubin generally hews to a more liberal viewpoint, while Sofaer espouses a more conservative philosophy — the tone of the discussion was set when Rubin remarked that post-Sept. 11 events don't "break down that easily in terms of left and right."

The "erosion of civil rights," he said, is actually undermining national security instead of fostering it. The European Union and much of the Arab world view the United States as hypocritical — a circumstance which Rubin said contributes to fissures in the international coalition against terrorism.

Sofaer responded that U.S. history is replete with instances of civil liberties being curtailed in times of crisis. Fearing an invasion from France, President John Adams enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, giving the U.S. government broad powers to deport anyone considered dangerous to the country's well-being. Abraham Lincoln jailed Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War, and severely curtailed freedom of the press during his tenure.

Sofaer also pointed out that two of the most progressive presidents of the modern era, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, suspended civil rights, with Roosevelt interning over 100,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. Although history has clearly shown many of the decisions (particularly Roosevelt's) to be clearly wrong, the professor said that the current debate has to be framed within the context of the times.

Sofaer said the active approach to law enforcement favored by Attorney General John Ashcroft was yielding great results, a marked departure from previous administrations, which had focused more on intelligence-gathering. As far as profiling certain groups, Ashcroft has said that interrogating "illegal immigrants" from the Middle East is entirely justifiable and that all efforts should be naturally focused on groups "most likely to produce terrorists."

Rubin countered that the government's zeal for rooting out suspected terrorists had resulted in flawed and occasionally xenophobic public policies. He singled out the recently passed Aviation Security Act, which requires that all airport security personnel throughout the United States be U. S. citizens, and pointed out that a large percentage of the workforce at San Francisco International Airport is comprised of Filipino workers who have yet to attain citizenship. Nearly 70 percent of the airport's workforce is comprised of people of color, predominantly Filipinos.

Ironically, the Aviation Security Act also prefers granting employment to former members of the U.S. military, according to Rubin. That background applies to many of the Filipino workers at the airport even though many have yet to change their permanent residency status.

Because they are still in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship, Filipino immigrants employed as airport security workers could lose their jobs.

"The bottom line," Rubin said, "is that we as a country must reject the notion that tension exists between civil rights and national security."