The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Attack on immigrants of another era:
The Palmer Raids

Nov 5, 2001

This year is not the only time in U.S. history we have seen attacks carried out against immigrants. Following World War I, the U.S. government itself organized the deportation of thousands of people born abroad at a time when immigrants made up an important part of the working class.

There were two reasons for these attacks: the attention paid by American workers to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the increased militancy of millions of workers willing to fight and strike in this country to improve their miserable conditions. The year 1919 saw the biggest strike wave in U.S. labor history; including the Seattle general strike and the strike by 275,000 steel workers, many of them immigrants, who struck U.S. Steel to raise their starvation -level wages. A number of the leaders, including those of the U.S. Steel strike, were people with communist and socialist ideas, some born elsewhere, some born in the U.S.

The bosses’ mouthpiece, the National Association of Manufacturers, claimed the steel strike was “an un-American conspiracy” when workers demanded union recognition, higher wages, shorter hours.

Congress demanded that Attorney General, A.M. Palmer, rid the country of this threat of anarchy, sedition, defiance of the law, and supposed destruction of property – in other words, the readiness of the working class to fight to defend its own interests. Palmer complied with a series of raids which targetted the leaders of this vast struggle.

He used the fact that many of those in leadership roles among the workers were born elsewhere as an excuse to kick them out of the country.

The first round-up of aliens came on November 7, 1919 at the offices of the Union of Russian Workers. The more famous raid was December 21, in which 249 people were dragged from their homes, forcibly put on board a ship and deported. Other raids continued through January of 1920, during which thousands of people were rounded up, kept imprisoned without counsel, sometimes beaten, and later deported.

Palmer was assisted in his raids by an ambitious young man named J. Edgar Hoover, happy to hunt “reds,” for which he later became famous in the 1950s.

The state may have claimed to be removing “undesirable aliens” – in reality, it was removing real leaders of the working class movement.