Category Archives: immigration

Libya’s Exports to Europe: Oil and Immigrants

Muammar Qaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have more in common than their   tastes for lavish parties and sexy young women, or even their notorious 2009 “friendship pact.” Despite being the buffoons of their respective regions, each wields considerable power. And they share a common destiny that revolves around two types of Libyan exports: fossil fuels, which Italy desperately wants, and migrants, which it decidedly doesn’t.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, warned on Wednesday that the Libyan uprising could result in 350,000 unwanted immigrants landing on the Eur0pean continent. According to the Italian news site Adnkronos, Italy asked the EU for support in stopping the migrants, who most often enter through Italian shores.

”We ask that Europe do its duty,” he said during a Wednesday address to parliament in Rome. We want Europe to do more managing the flow of migrants because countries cannot be left alone.”

Italy in May 2009 agreed to begin controversial joint patrols with Libya, turning back thousands of illegal immigrants aboard boats in the Mediterranean.

Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi hinted that he may unilaterally scrap cooperation, warning that he would allow thousands of migrants to pass through his country on the way to Europe if the EU sided with opponents of his embattled rule.

Qaddafi knows all too well how to frigthen European leaders–especially Berlusconi–who have right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigrant movements at their backs. And in normal times, this sort of scare tactic might have been enough to push Europe into aquiescence as differences were papered over in some sort of “reform.” But it is too late for that. Qaddafi totters, and no one can predict what will happen in the region. Emerging politics might at best result in some version of an Indian-style democracy, at worst chaotic Somali-style warfare with faction pitted against faction.

What may be even more frightening to Italy–and to much of Europe as well–is the prospect of losing Libya’s supply of oil and natural gas. Italy gets one third of its oil from Libya by way of the big oil company ENI. The company has already pulled out most of its employees and cut back the flow of natural gas through the pipeline that connects Libya and Italy.

ENI is the sixth largest oil company in the world. It is 30 percent owned by theItalian government, which has special rights to block mergers and sharply limit holdings of other investors. About 11 percent of the company securities are held by institutions including such big American mutual funds as Vanguard and Fidelity, along with Wellington Management, the big Boston investment management concern. The top 10 institutional holders control about 8 percent of the stock. Unlike the other majors, it has most of its reserves in politically volatile North Africa, which as the oil industry goes, remains relatively underdeveloped.

In turn, as Al Jazeera reports, several other international energy giants have stakes in Libyan oil and gas. Following the 2003 rapproachment with Qaddafi,

 European energy firms were quick to invest in the holder of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, the eighth-largest in the world, while many others signed lucrative arms and construction deals.

Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, signed a so-called “Deal in the Desert” in March 2004, which paved the way for oil contracts worth billions, leading to a close relationship that has come under increasing criticism.

It included Anglo-Dutch company Shell signing an agreement worth up to $1bn and three years later BP agreeing its largest exploration commitment to date, in a deal worth at least $900m in Libya.

A historical footnote: Both Libya and Italy have been important but little-known players in the evolution of Middle East oil. In March 1951 the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran took over the oil industry from the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, which became BP. The CIA conpired to overthrow Mossadeq and installed the Shah. Then the U.S. stepped in with Herbert  Hoover, Jr., dispatched by President Eisenhower to reinstate the international cartel of big companies that for years had dominated the industry. Iran’s oil reserves were carved up amongst British, Dutch, French and for the first time, American interests. But it did not include Italy, which was entirely dependent on imported oil.

Angered at being cut out of the competition, Enrico Mattei, head of the Italian state company now known as ENI, went to war against the cartel, and after Suez in 1956 he persuaded the Iranian parliament to rewrite the country’s petroleum law to make way for a new sort of production system known as joint ventures. Under this arrangement the company and country became partners, and they replaced the old concessions. In short order, the joint venture opened the way for direct nationalization and the birth of OPEC.

Libyan Wild Card: The Qaddafi-Berlusconi Pact Against Migrants

By Sunday evening, the fighting in Libya was spreading to Tripoli, and the nation’s second largest city, Benghazi, appeared to be in the hands of the protestors. Over 200 people had been killed and hundreds more wounded by security forces, and Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, was warning of civil war, and pledging that the government would ‘fight to the last bullet’ to stay in office.’’

The Libyan protests have been inspired by the wave of uprisings across North Africa, but they grow out of deep-seated poverty, unemployment, and political repression at the hands of yet another entrenched despot. Whether they will result in Libya achieving the sort of change experienced by Tunisia and Egypt is impossible to say, but early signs indicate that whatever the outcome, a high price is likely to be paid in human life.

Complicating matters is Libya’s unusual position in world affairs. Not long ago it was a pariah nation. But since 9/11 it has wormed its way back into favor with the US and Europe because Qaddafi joined the war on terror, cooperating in the Lockerbie bomb investigation, coming down hard on Al Qaeda, and kicking out terrorists he had once sheltered. At the same time, he has steered the country into an increasingly powerful position in world politics because of the nation’s vast oil reserves. Libya has an especially close relationship with its former colonial master, Italy. It now provides about 20 percent of all Italy’s oil imports and has invested in sizeable amounts in that country’s energy infrastructure including the transnational energy giant ENI.

Along with their energy deals, Berlusconi and Qaddafi have agreed to work together to stem the increasing numbers of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. In addition to those from North Africa itself are thousands more moving  up the Red Sea from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and other countries. Their point of entry is Italy–specifically, the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies in the Mediterranean at a midpoint midway between Libya, Tunisia, and Sicily. 

In 2009, Qaddafi and Berlusconi made an agreement that became part of an open and often vicious campaign against migrants: Libya would try to keep them from leaving in the first place; if they got out, Italy would send them back to Libya without giving them a chance to make asylum claims.

Human Rights Watch has documented the attacks on migrants in a detailed report called Pushed Back, Pushed Around:  Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers. Here is but a brief account of the two nation’s in action:

Many of the worst abuses reported to Human Rights Watch occurred after failed attempts to leave Libya. One of the migrants, “Pastor Paul” (all names have been changed), a 32-year-old Nigerian, told Human Rights Watch how Libyan authorities brutally treated him when the Libyans stopped his boat shortly after it left Libya on October 20, 2008:

“We were in a wooden boat, and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don’t know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the Zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy. The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there, they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk.”

Even without the violence now being seen in Libya, the unrest in Tunisia launched a wave of 4,000 new migrants to Lampedusa from that country. They are being held in Italian refugee camps; but if similar numbers arrive from Libya, they will be summarily–and brutally–shipped home.

In the past, Qadaffi has patched up internal unrest and smoothed over human rights abuses by distributing more money from  energy profits, meanwhile calling on Europe and the U.S. to go easy on their new “ally.” Those on the right, in particular, are inclined to do so because he is a stalwart in the war on terror and an effective force in blocking immigration, a key political issue advanced by the right wing parties across the continent.

U.S. Policy Helped Keep Haiti in Chaos

In the wake of the devastating earthquake, U.S. eyes are again turned toward Haiti–something that only seems to happen when yet another disaster strikes, and never during the daily chaos and misery that plague this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Haiti, reporting first on the repression under the Duvaliers, then on the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s popular movement, and then on the 1991 military coup that brought him down. I was there during the period of the 1994 military intervention that restored Aristede to power.

U.S. interest in the country seemed to wane with the departure of American troops, and in the aftermath of September 11 and the Bush administration’s numerous adventures around the world, Haiti returned to its usual state of invisibility in Western eyes. Few people noticed a remarkable report that appeared in the New York Times in 2006, based in part on the analysis of former ambassador Brian Dean Curran, showing how U.S. policy helped to destabalize Haiti in the years leading up to 2004, when Aristede was again forced out, by armed rebels under an accused death squad leader. Written shortly before the election won by current president Rene Preval, Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg titled their story “Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos.” After Aristede’s 2004 departure, they write: 

Haiti, never a model of stability, soon dissolved into a state so lawless it stunned even those who had pushed for the removal of Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who rose to power as the champion and hero of Haiti’s poor.

Today, the capital, Port-au-Prince, is virtually paralyzed by kidnappings, spreading panic among rich and poor alike. Corrupt police officers in uniform have assassinated people on the streets in the light of day. The chaos is so extreme and the interim government so dysfunctional that voting to elect a new one has already been delayed four times….

Yet even as Haiti prepares to pick its first elected president since the rebellion two years ago, questions linger about the circumstances of Mr. Aristide’s ouster — and especially why the Bush administration, which has made building democracy a centerpiece of its foreign policy in Iraq and around the world, did not do more to preserve it so close to its shores.

The Bush administration has said that while Mr. Aristide was deeply flawed, its policy was always to work with him as Haiti’s democratically elected leader. But the administration’s actions in Haiti did not always match its words. Interviews and a review of government documents show that a democracy-building group close to the White House, and financed by American taxpayers, undercut the official United States policy and the ambassador assigned to carry it out.

As a result, the United States spoke with two sometimes contradictory voices in a country where its words carry enormous weight. That mixed message, the former American ambassador said, made efforts to foster political peace “immeasurably more difficult.” Without a political agreement, a weak government was destabilized further, leaving it vulnerable to the rebels.

Mr. Curran accused the democracy-building group, the International Republican Institute, of trying to undermine the reconciliation process after disputed 2000 Senate elections threw Haiti into a violent political crisis. The group’s leader in Haiti, Stanley Lucas, an avowed Aristide opponent from the Haitian elite, counseled the opposition to stand firm, and not work with Mr. Aristide, as a way to cripple his government and drive him from power, said Mr. Curran, whose account is supported in crucial parts by other diplomats and opposition figures. Many of these people spoke publicly about the events for the first time.

Mr. Curran, a 30-year Foreign Service veteran and a Clinton appointee retained by President Bush, also accused Mr. Lucas of telling the opposition that he, not the ambassador, represented the Bush administration’s true intentions. Records show that Mr. Curran warned his bosses in Washington that Mr. Lucas’s behavior was contrary to American policy and “risked us being accused of attempting to destabilize the government.” Yet when he asked for tighter controls over the I.R.I. in the summer of 2002, he hit a roadblock after high officials in the State Department and National Security Council expressed support for the pro-democracy group, an American aid official wrote at the time.

The International Republican Institute is one of several prominent nonprofit groups that receive federal funds to help countries develop the mechanisms of democracy, like campaigning and election monitoring. Of all the groups, though, the I.R.I. is closest to the administration. President Bush picked its president, Lorne W. Craner, to run his administration’s democracy-building efforts. The institute, which works in more than 60 countries, has seen its federal financing nearly triple in three years, from $26 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2005. Last spring, at an I.R.I. fund-raiser, Mr. Bush called democracy-building “a growth industry.” These groups walk a fine line. Under federal guidelines, they are supposed to nurture democracy in a nonpartisan way, lest they be accused of meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. But in Haiti, according to diplomats, Mr. Lucas actively worked against President Aristide.

While it can be counted on not to engage in these kinds of deadly shenanigans, the the Obama administration hasn’t taken much meaingful action on Haiti in the past year. It did pull back on some of the harshest deportation policies of the Bush years, which affected Haitians fleeing their country’s shores. But it has implemented few of the recommendations, for example, put out by the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network after Obama’s inauguration, which included canceling debts and increasing trade.

For the most part, Europe and the United States have continued to sit by as Haiti has grown poorer and poorer. When I was there you could find the children just outside Cite Soleil, the giant slum, living in the garbage dump, waiting for the U.S. army trucks to dump the scraps left from the meals of American soldiers. There they stood, knee deep in garbage, fighting for bits of food.  As for the old, they people every street, gathering at the Holiday Inn at Port au Prince in wheelchairs, waiting at the doorway in search of a coin or two. They have no social safety net. And nobody with any money–no bank, no insurance company, no hedge fund, no mutual fund–ever makes any serious investment in the country.

It is hard to imagine what a magnitude 7 earthquake might do to a city that, on any ordinary day, already resembles a disaster area.  Today, compassionate Americans will wince at the photos, then pick their way among the foundations which offer alms to the Haitian poor. Here is one unlikely proposal to help Haiti, taken from Juan Cole’s email listserv this morning. It goes like this: “Memo to Obama on Haiti: It’s reported that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have set aside $47 billion for bonuses,” says an NPR account, according to Cole. “Haiti’s annual gross domestic product in nominal terms is about $7 bn. a year. Seize the bonuses. Send them to Haiti.”

It’ll never happen, of course. But if there were any justice in the world, it would.

Armies of the Right

Across the nation this summer, unknown numbers of people are hunkering down and arming up for what they believe is an imminent battle for the soul of America. Town halls and tea parties provide just a small glimpse of the rage, fear, and paranoia fomenting on front porches and in Internet chat rooms, in the conservative heartland and beyond. While the details may vary, the visions in such forums share a common theme: In one way or another, a fight to the death is coming, and coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

These deep-seated fears explain at least some of the vitriol, the violent scuffles, and death threats bubbling up in town hall protests against health care reform. It’s all too easy for certain right-wing activists to accept that the president’s plan will create death panels or mandate taxpayer-funded abortions. Because some of these people don’t just believe that Obama wants to destroy capitalism and kill their granny and their unborn child—they believe he wants to kill them, too.

At a town hall meeting with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Maryland, on August 12, one attendee carried a sign that read “Death to Obama,” and “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.” Another sign at the same event compared Obama to Hitler. At least some of the Obama-Hitler iconography originates from followers of perennial whack-job Lyndon LaRouche, but the comparison has been disseminated by Rush Limbaugh to a wider audience of hardline conservatives.

That’s not the only insidious comparison making the rounds: One protester who attended a raucous town hall with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told a Village Voice reporter that Obama was a “21st-century Marxist” who would adopt the same methods Hugo Chavez used to take power in Venezuela: “infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media.” 

As the town halls have become more heated, the hints of violence have become increasingly overt. One man showed up outside the president’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a hand gun strapped to his thigh; on August 17, another brought an assault rifle to a demonstration at the site of Obama’s speech to veterans in Phoenix. It emerged that the latter’s presence at the meeting had been coordinated with a former member of the Viper Militia, whose adherents were convicted of weapons and conspiracy charges in the 1990s and were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings. 

Clearly, this is about far more than health care policy. Instead, it’s just one sign out of many heralding a resurgence of the extreme right wing. It’s been widely reported that extremist groups are growing, in numbers and membership, since Obama launched his presidential campaign. As in the past, some of the ideas espoused by these groups are working their way further toward the political core with the help of right-wing politicians and media figures. 

For instance, take Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) claim that expanding AmeriCorps would result in liberal “re-education camps.” This statement has now morphed into rumors that the young community service volunteers are being armed to take over the country—possibly with some help from the New Black Panther Party.

Similarly, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is predicting an October surprise from Obama in the form of “a hyped-up outbreak of the swine flu, which they’ll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for health care reform.”

The assertion may sound ludicrous, but it dovetails nicely with a view among conspiracy theorists that a sweeping and deadly plot lurks behind the swine flu pandemic. Influenced by the work of a whacked-out Austrian “journalist” named Jane Bürgermeister, some on the far right believe the virus was manufactured by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the rest of the black helicopter crowd’s usual suspects, as “part of a long-term plan by the syndicate, who have built large numbers of FEMA concentration camps with incinerators and prepared mass graves in states such as Indiana and in New York to quarantine people and dispose of the bodies of the people who are killed by the bioweapons attack.” This “depopulation” scheme has in turn been linked by conspiracy theorists to the Obama administration’s plans for a “global planetary regime to enforce forced abortion” and sterilizing the population through the water supply.

Among liberals, the dominant take on all of this seems to be ridicule and derision, or else impotent hand-wringing about the demise of “civil discourse.” It’s as if they’d forgotten that many of these so-called loonies just happen to own guns—and while liberals go on chattering, these folks are stocking up on ammunition. And right-wing radicals have an advantage when it comes to ideological fervor. Obama and the Democrats in Congress quickly frittered away any populist energy that might have come out of the recession, the fiasco of the Bush years, or the 2008 election. All that’s left are the compromises on top of compromises that they call policymaking, for which no one can muster much enthusiasm. Right-wing zealots, on the other hand, think they are fighting for their lives by standing fast against communism, or the anti-Christ, or both; they’re not only doing God’s work, but also fulfilling their destiny as true American patriots.

Indeed, the right-wing revival is infused with the words and imagery of the American Revolution. The gun-toting protestor at Obama’s New Hampshire health care town hall was also carrying a sign that read, “It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty”—a clear reference to a quote from Thomas Jefferson that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” (Because he had a permit and wasn’t in shooting range of the tyrant, the patriot was allowed to keep his gun.) On a website also called The Tree of Liberty, members exchange Obama insults and apocalyptic visions in a forum called Committees of Correspondence, named for assemblies in colonial America that protested tyrannical British policies.

The denizens of these gatherings and websites, the tea parties and the raucous town halls, represent a long-standing force in the country’s political culture: American nativism. This oft-ignored strain draws its central impulse from an opposition to anything that challenges the vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Nativists have taken aim at Catholics, Jews, freed slaves, and successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and continuing through to present-day immigrants from Latin America. They call for a closing of US borders and support strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change. And they have been inextricably linked to racist right-wing movements, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Militias to the Minutemen who now “guard” the border. (In the current debate over health care reform, one of the most powerful myths is that it will extend free coverage to illegal immigrants at the expense of “real” Americans.)

Many followers of modern extremist right-wing groups also adhere to the doctrine of Christian Identity, which teaches that white men are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. The black and yellow people, they believe, are of lesser stature, likened by some to a bad first copy made by God in his fashioning of the Garden of Eden. They are not real people, the thinking goes, and should be cast down as “mud people.” The American Founding Fathers were among the true sovereigns, and the white patriots of today are their descendants. Even before Obama’s election, many believed that the nation’s political and economic systems had been taken over by the Zionist Occupied Government. Jews, according to them, are not true white people, and are bent upon world domination, with the aid of their henchmen, the racial minorities.

That’s why the election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage: The president is a black man, child of an interracial union, the son of a foreigner who bears a foreign name. According to some, he is not even an American citizen. “[T]he face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black,” says a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “And the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate.”

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Lone Wolves and Lynch Mobs: The Threats Behind Town Hall Meetings

Keep in mind that it’s one thing to forcefully argue for health care reform, including dramatic changes to Obama’s approach–and quite another to join in activities that threaten physical harm, along the lines of the attacks on abortion clinics that sometimes culminated the murder of workers and doctors, the most recent being Wichita’s Dr. George Tiller.

Some of these tactics, used by some of the right to life movement and its supposedly unwanted allies on the far right, are being employed against members of Congress at the so-called town meetings on health care reform.  The Washington Post reports this morning reports on one of these confrontations, with newly minted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania:

The exchange between Specter and one man broadcast throughout the day on cable television — culminated with the senator asking whether the man would like to leave the meeting and the man responding, to applause from some in the crowd: “One day God’s going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill.”

Earlier in the week, Buzzflash featured a personal report by Maria Allwine on the crowds outside a town hall meeting with Senator Ben Cardin in the Baltimore suburbs, which she attended with a group of single-payer advocates:

I have never seen such hatred, vitriol and racism in all my life – and I do not say that lightly.  It made me physically ill – I could stand the heat, but I couldn’t stand the hatred and racism.  We all read about it, we know it – but having it in your face in such large and angry numbers is hard to deal with.  There were posters of Obama as Hitler, the Democratic Nazi Party, Keep Your Laws Off My Body (except for abortion – I asked) and various and sundry examples of ugliness.  Some Lyndon LaRouche supporters along with anti-immigration and tort reform.  Also a lot of “killing the elderly, euthanasia” type signs.  And of course, our favorite – “No Socialism.”  As I looked across Osler at these people, they were screaming and angry – and they often came over to where we were to provoke us and to out-shout us.  The comments to me as I walked up and down with my signs were appalling. …

Folks, this is NOT about healthcare or anything remotely resembling policy or any particular issue.  This is about the naked anger of the right wing being out of power and not accepting a black man as President combined with their own racism – it’s thinly veiled at best, but it’s racism.  I venture to say that this is the least thinly veiled racism I’ve seen for a long time – they have taken those gloves off.

The rightwing swiftboating that has characterized the last two presidential campaigns can take a racialist turn, as they did in Pennsylvania during the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Obama. During that heated contest,even reporters were taken aback at some of the racist epithets aimed at Obama. The same sort of thing resurfaced at some of Sarah Palin’s rallies during the general election. And it’s back in force at the town hall meetings.

It’s this sort of wild threatening talk that puts law enforcement on the alert for people taking matters into their own hands. The militias once more are on the rise. And the  FBI currently is in the midst of a broad reconnaisance effort to locate “lone wolf killers” whom they fear will turn to armed action, along the lines of the Tiller murder and the Holocaust Museum attack, not to mention the earlier and less publicized murder of two Pittsburgh police officers. As USA Today reported yesterday:

Federal authorities have launched an effort to detect lone attackers who may be contemplating politically charged assaults similar to the recent murders of a Kansas abortion doctor and a Holocaust museum security guard.The effort, known as the “Lone Wolf Initiative,” was started shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, in part because of a rising level of hate speech and surging gun sales.

 

Sotomayor for the Prosecution

Sonia Sotomayor’s all-but-certain conifirmation will be a notable victory for the Democrats, and a long-overdue victory for diversity on the nation’s highest court. Whether it will be a victory for criminal justice is another question altogether–and one that seems to matter little to most of her liberal supporters.

Long before her Senate confirmation hearings began, progressive politicians, lawyers, scholars, activists, and bloggers had joined together, as if in one voice, to sing Sotomayor’s praises. Beyond predictable paeans to her qualifications and her inspiring personal story, the focus of this chorus of accolades is not Judge Sotomayor’s passion for justice, her moral rectitude, or even her much-discussed “empathy.” Instead, Congressional Democrats and their allies have banded together to celebrate how thoroughly indistinguishable Sonia Sotomayor is from a Republican judge.

In their zeal to show that she is a “moderate,” Sotomayor’s liberal supporters are downplaying all her most compelling qualities, while lauding her most conservative decisions. She has rejected the majority of racial discrimination claims, they crow, and sent most immigrants packing. On criminal justice matters, she is somewhere to the right of the man she will replace, Daddy Bush appointee David Souter. The very facts that ought to make progressives cringe are instead being extolled as Sotomayor’s greatest virtues, since they are the things that render her eminently “confirmable.”

The most barefaced example of this rhetoric came on the eve of the hearings from New York Senator Charles Schumer, considered one of the Judiciary Committee’s most liberal members. Declaring Sotomayor a “slam dunk,” Schumer bragged

She has agreed with Republican colleagues 95 percent of the time. She has ruled for the government in 83 percent of immigration cases, against the immigration plaintiff. She has ruled for the government in 92 percent of criminal cases. She has denied race claims in 83 percent of the cases and has split evenly on employment cases between employer and employee.

 It was Schumer’s office that last month released its own study of Sotomayor’s 848 decisions in federal asylum cases, including those based on alleged violations of the Convention on Torture. Sotomayor ruled in favor of plaintiffs in these cases just 17 percent o the time. “These findings should put to rest any doubts about Judge Sotomayor’s fidelity to the rule of law,” Schumer said in a statement. “Even in immigration cases, which would most test the so-called ‘empathy factor,’ Judge Sotomayor’s record is well within the judicial mainstream.” In other words, being a Latina won’t make Sotomayor any more compassionate toward immigrants who face torture and death when we ship them back home.

On questions of criminal justice and criminal procedure, Sotomayor has a particularly substantial record—more than anyone else on the current Supreme Court, as her supporters have rightly pointed out, due to her career as a prosecutor, criminal court judge, and appellate judge. On this front, Sotomayor’s backers are promoting her as a tough-on-crime pragmatist with no soft spot for criminal defendants—even if they happen to be innocent.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal looked approvingly at Sotomayor’s record on criminal cases, in an article titled “Nominees Criminal Rulings Tilt to the Right of Souter.” The retiring Republican-appointee Souter has sometimes joined Court liberals in defending the rights of the accused and convicted—most recently in a January case concerning police searches and seizures. In a similar appellate case, Sotomayor had ruled in favor of the police. The Journal reported:

New York criminal-defense lawyers say she is surprisingly tough on crime for a Democratic-backed appointee — a byproduct, they believe, of her tenure as a prosecutor….Following recent Supreme Court precedent, Judge Sotomayor tends to see relatively few grounds to overturn criminal convictions, says John Siffert, a New York attorney who taught an appellate advocacy class with the judge at New York University School of Law from 1996 to 2006. On the trial bench, he says, “she was not viewed as a pro-defense judge.”

 Sotomayor had the opportunity to review many petitions for writs of habeas corpus–the basic Constitutional right to seek judicial relief from unlawful detention, which offers recourse to those who believe they have been unfairly or improperly tried or wrongly convicted. Progressives have for years attacked the Bush administration for denying habeas corpus rights to prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere. The Alliance for Justice, a 30-year-old coalition of progressive groups, has a special project called “Defend Habeas,” which states on its web site:

Without access to due process guarantees enshrined in the Constitution, people can be imprisoned indefinitely, without any hope of a fair trial or hearing, or even an opportunity to respond to the charges against them. …

Eliminating habeas turns our back on what it means to be an American, and advances a policy that makes us less secure rather than more secure. If the United States cannot guarantee rights to the citizens of other countries, what guarantee do Americans have that their rights will be respected by the rest of the world? We live in a country of laws, not of men, and in order to stand up for that tradition, due process must be restored.

 Yet for those incarcerated in U.S. prisons, the main obstacle to accessing these rights is not anything concocted during the Bush years. It is the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), introduced in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and signed into law by Bill Clinton in an election year. The AEDPA severely restricts the ability of federal judges to grant writs of habeas corpus and offer judicial relief to the convicted, even when there is substantial new evidence of their innocence.

Sonia Sotomayor rendered her appellate decisions under the restrictions imposed by AEDPA, and was subject to its tenets. But as a handful of defense lawyers have pointed out, mostly on personal blogs, she seemed more than content to abide by those restrictions. One blogger calls her a “dead bang loser for the defense.” The blog of the conservative, law-and-order Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, agreed, and praised Sotomayor on these very grounds:

[AEDPA] is bitterly resented by many federal judges….Many, many federal judges have attempted to evade it, and a few have gone so far as to declare it unconstitutional. All of the latter have been reversed [by the Supreme Court]….Throughout [Sotomayor’s] opinions, I do not see the hostility to AEDPA that I have seen in so many opinions in the lower federal courts. The statute is largely applied as written and as intended.

 A more surprising affirmation of Sotomayor’s record in this area came from the Alliance for Justice, sponsors of the Defend Habeas project. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy and ranking member Jeff Sessions, the AFJ wrote:

Judge Sotomayor’s criminal justice opinions reveal the temperament of a former prosecutor who understands the real-world demands of prosecuting crime and fundamentally respects the rule of law. When reviewing the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, Judge Sotomayor closely follows Second Circuit precedent and dispenses narrow rulings tailored to the particular facts of the case. Exhibiting a moderate and restrained approach to judicial review of trial process, she focuses on procedural issues, and she has resolved the overwhelming majority of her cases without reaching the merits of a defendant’s claim. Significantly, she frequently concludes that trial defects resulted in harmless rather than structural error. Her restrained anner is most evident in her habeas corpus decisions, in which she strictly adheres to the procedural requirements of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), often dismissing habeas petitions as nexhausted or time-barred under AEDPA, even when faced with potentially credible—and, in one instance, ultimately proven—claims of actual innocence. While the Alliance for Justice believes that, where possible, judges should reach the merits of a defendant’s constitutional claims and recognize the damage that a trial court error inflicts on the integrity of a criminal proceeding, we nonetheless respect Judge Sotomayor’s moderate approach and commitment to preserving the delicate balance between the government’s ability to prosecute crime and an individual’s constitutional rights.

The AFJ’s report, and its upbeat press conference on Sotomayor’s criminal rulings, were widely reported, under headlines like “Liberal Group Praises Sotomayor’s Criminal Justice Record,” and “Sotomayor ‘Tough’ on Crime, Report Says.” It all begs the question of whether habeas corpus rights warrant the most fervent and absolute defense only when they are violated by Republicans, and not when they are dismissed by Democratic court nominees under laws signed by Democratic presidents. 

The most powerful statement on this issue has come from Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder at age 17, and spent 16 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. His earlier appeals had, in 1997, reached New York State’s highest appeals court, where his petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied because his lawyer had filed it four days late (on the erroneous advice of a court clerk). The time restriction had been imposed by the then-new AEDPA.

Deskovic then appealed his case to the Federal Second Circuit, where he encountered Judge Sonia Sotomayor. As he described it in a piece on Alternet last week, his lawyer “gave three reasons why Judge Sotomayor and her colleague should overturn the procedural ruling: 1) Upholding such a ruling would cause a miscarriage of justice to continue; 2) Reversing the procedural ruling could open the door to more sophisticated DNA Testing; 3) The late petition was not my fault or my attorney’s.” But the judges refused to reverse the ruling. “The alleged reliance of Deskovic’s attorney on verbal misinformation from the court clerk constitutes excusable neglect that does not rise to the level of an extraordinary circumstance,” they wrote. “Similarly, we are not persuaded that … his situation is unique and his petition has substantive merit.” A second appeal to Sotomayor’s court resulted in the same decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case, so Deskovic stayed in prison for six more years before DNA proved him innocent (and convicted another man). Deskovic writes:

Judge Sotomayor will appear before the Senate next week. Given that she has been nominated to a lifetime appointment that affects all of our rights, what she did in my case — condemning me to a life sentence based on procedure in the face of an airtight innocence claim — should be part of the discussion. I want my case to be a part of the national discussion. I want Senators to ask Judge Sotomayor if she stands by her ruling, and whether she would rule that way in the future. If I could I would testify at the Senate confirmation hearing, about the human impact of Judge Sotomayor’s putting procedure over innocence. Thus far, however, I have gotten no response from either side on Capitol Hill.

In fact, as Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, wrote to me in an email last week, Judge Sotomayor’s ruling against Deskovic would likely be seen as “a strong reason for her to be confirmed to the court since it shows she is outcome-oriented.” Wright continued:

No one cares about innocent people dying in prison, the Republicans and Democrats alike are fine with it….The courts do everything they can to avoid reaching the merits of prisoners’ claims and instead love to dismiss on procedural technicalities. It is the purposeful triumph of form over substance.

Indeed, it is decisions much like this one that are offered up as proof that Sotomayor is a moderate, and not an “activist” judge–which is the current term for jurists who render decisions based upon whether they actually serve the cause of justice. The fact that progressives feel they must celebrate rulings like these in order to prove their nominee is in the “mainstream” is far more a condemnation of Sotomayor’s supporters than of the judge herself.  It all goes to show how far to the right that mainstream now runs–and how willingly liberals have been borne along by the current.

A Tale of Two Janets: Napolitano Becomes the Right’s Favorite Target

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has become the woman the right loves to hate–to the napolitano_frontpage1point that bloggers, talk show hosts, and right-wing groups are jumping aboard a new “dump Janet” movement.

Anyone old enough to remember the the Clinton administration should have seen this one coming. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, was second only to Hillary on the list of conservatives’ most-loathed women–and for the far right, Reno quickly moved into the #1 slot after the Waco debacle, which took place during the first year of her tenure. The inferno that ended a siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco may or may not have been caused by federal agents, but it was certainly provoked by their bungling aggression, and it provided fuel for radical far-right movements for years to come: Waco aided the growth of the Militia Movement, and was cited by Timothy McVeigh as a reason for the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place on its second anniversary.

Janet Napolitano’s transgressions are hardly in the same league as Waco. But there’s a kind of perverse symmetry in the fact that it was a half-baked, ill-timed report on “right-wing extremism” that helped cement Napolitano’s status as the most-reviled woman in the new Democratic administration. The April 7 Department of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement officials that the economic crisis, plus the election of a black president, were likely to aid the recruiting efforts of far-right groups. 

As I’ve written before, the report was dangerously vague and speculative, and should make civil libertarians of all stripes nervous. But it was aimed at the violent, radical far-right movement, not homelandadtwo1at mainstream or even hard-core conservatives. Yet it became a rallying point for right-wing pundits and talk radio hosts, and was brandished at “tea parties” later that month. And at the center of it all was Janet Napolitano.

After the story of the DHS report broke, the Drudge Report featured a picture of Napolitano above the line, “SHE IS WATCHING YOU.” Within a week, Newsmax was reporting on Republicans who had “taken to the House floor to criticize Napolitano.” The ever-present Michele Bachmann asked: “Has this homeland security secretary gone absolutely stark raving mad?” and said of Napolitano: “She needs to come before Congress. She needs to answer a few questions.” Texas’s Michael Burgess said her actions reflected “the tactics of tyrannical governments from Red China to Venezuela.” 

Further to the right, the attacks were even more vicious (and often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic), and more explicit about the Reno parallel. The blog Theodore’s World, which proclaims itself a “PC Free Zone” recently featured side-by-side head shots of the two Janets–Napolitano and Reno–with the caption “Fascist Wench’s” (sic). The whacked-out Plain Truth blog cited Waco (for which it says Reno and Bill Clinton should be hanged) and asked: “Is Janet Napolitano in some danse macabre with Janet Reno to beat her bloody record and up the ante by aiming at veterans and others whose patriotism would never be questioned by sane people?” (This list goes on, but I don’t have the stomach for it.)

Then came the swine flu outbreak. Right-wingers, already unhappy with Napolitano for her perceived softness on illegal immigration, now accused her of placing U.S. lives at risk by refusing to close the Mexican border. This offered them an opportunity to simultaneously attack two of their favorite targets: Napolitano and immigrants–as talk radio’s Michael Savage did last week:

Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico…If we lived in saner times, the borders would be closed immediately…[C]ould this be a terrorist attack through Mexico? Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?…[T]hey are a perfect mule–perfect mules for bringing this virus into America. But you wouldn’t think that way, would you? Because you are incapable of protecting America’s homeland, Napolitano.

One web site accused Napolitano of “race pandering instead of closing the border to swine flu”; another  offered a simple solution to what it called the “lunacy” of keeping the borders open: “dump Janet in Mexico.”

Dumping Janet is now a popular topic in the conservative blogosphere, where Napolitano has earned several nicknames–including “J-No” and “Nappy.” There are web sites,  several online petitions, and various other campaigns demanding the DHS secretary’s resignation, as well as a couple of lawsuits against her.

Perhaps the most ironic things about these attacks is that Janet Napolitano–like Janet Reno before her–is one of the more conservative dem-govs03members of the administration. (How else could she have been elected governor of Arizona by an almost 2-1 margin?) She is known for being  relatively tough on crime,  drug trafficking, and even immigration–though she prefers harsh penalties against employers, rather than undocumented workers. She also believes the right to bear arms is “fundamental to the liberty interests of all Americans.”