A Century Before Trump's ICE Raids, the U.S. Government Rounded Up Thousands of Immigrants. Here's What Happened

Olivia B. Waxman

Advocates who work with migrants in the U.S. were braced for last weekend to bring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that aimed to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants, and Mexico has been preparing for the arrival of more than 1,800 migrants coming back from the U.S. In the wake of the weekend, though the ICE raids did not materialize as the blitz that was expected, President Trump claimed they were quietly successful and that they will continue in the coming days.

The raids, in whatever form, come almost exactly a century after another infamous example of the federal government rounding up immigrants for deportation.

It was Nov. 7, 1919, that armed Department of Justice agents stormed into the classroom where Michael Lavrowksy, a 50-year-old educator, was teaching algebra to Russian immigrants at the Russian People’s House in Manhattan. The agents told Lavrowsky to remove his eyeglasses and then beat him until he couldn’t stand, before throwing him down the stairwell where he was beaten again wood from the banisters.

Lavrowsky, who had applied for U.S. citizenship, was one of hundreds carted off to the agency’s office across from City Hall that night and one of thousands of immigrants and members of left-leaning groups targeted nationwide that month. In December of 1919, the federal government piled anarchist political activists, including Emma Goldman, onto the USS Buford, nicknamed the “Soviet Ark” and deported them to Russia. An even bigger raid took place in January 1920.

During the period known as the “Red Scare,” these raids — nicknamed Palmer Raids after the then-U.S. Attorney General Mitchell A. Palmer — targeted Russians, especially members of the Union of Russian Workers, anarchists, communists and people loosely defined as “aliens.” About 4,000 people were arrested, and 800 were deported, according to Robert K. Murray’s Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920.

The Palmer Raids did not accomplish what the government wanted.

The anti-immigrant sentiment that fueled the raids came from a combination of factors, says Christopher M. Finan, author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, which features Lavrowksy’s story.

Fear of outsiders had grown alongside the great wave of immigration that came to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and those fears increased during wartime; after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act and then the Sedition Act of 1918. German textbooks were burned, and German immigrant Robert Prager was lynched.

“There was a crackdown on dissent, and simple criticism of the government was enough to send you to jail,” says Finan.

At the same time, the Russian Revolution of 1917 prompted fears that a similar overthrow of government could happen in the U.S. Finan says employers worried about that such a conspiracy would become a reality as more than 3,600 worker strikes took place in 1919. The demonstrations were prompted not by political ideology but by economic issues — high inflation at the exact moment when the loss of war-time jobs drove up unemployment — but employers conflated unionists with communists. As economic anxieties soared, anti-immigrant sentiment further increased.

The fears literally exploded when anarchists sent high-profile targets three dozen mail bombs during the last week of April, timed to May Day. About a month later, on June 2, 1919, the U.S. Attorney General himself was among the targets in a coordinated attack on judges, politicians and officials in law enforcement. The anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who planted the bomb on the same street where Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt lived, died when he tripped over the device. People were afraid something terrible was going to happen.

After the bombings, the raids began. But though real crimes had been committed, agents targeted any immigrants who were members of the organizations like the Union of Russian Workers, regardless of whether they had a criminal record.

“By modern standards there weren’t search warrants. [Agents] grabbed people off the street, out of bed, beat people up, threw them in jail, let them rot there, many times for a month before they got a hearing,” Finan says.

After the January 1920 raid, the economy started to improve, and America would enter the decade of prosperity known as the Roaring Twenties. The raids ceased, too.

“In the end, they were largely ineffective. They didn’t achieve their purpose. They never caught the anarchist bombers,” says Finan. Of those who were arrested but not deported, 80% were released without charge; some of the people who were arrested weren’t even members of the Union of Russian Workers. The authorities also realized that many of the left-leaning organizations they targeted did not pose a threat to the government after all. And Palmer, who had presidential ambitions, was out of a job when Warren Harding was elected.

But even as the large raids stopped, fears of immigrants and leftist groups did not end. The growth of immigrant populations fueled a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas that let in about 150,000 immigrants a year, compared to a million a year before the war. It’s the period “where J. Edgar Hoover cut his teeth,” says Finan, who points out that the long-time FBI chief was instrumental in planning the raids and then went on to build a department notorious for widespread surveillance of far-left dissenters.

On the other hand, the trampling of civil liberties led to increased protection of rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was established. In the next decade, key Supreme Court decisions clarified the meaning of free speech, including the burden on the government to prove “a clear and present danger.”

Comparing the Palmer Raids and this week’s ICE raids, Finan says there are “major differences” between then and now — notably the 24/7 news cycle of today. A century ago, he says, “the media wasn’t watching” and both major parties agreed that the communist threat required such action, so there wasn’t the kind of disagreement that’s seen on the immigration issue these days. Opposition to the Palmer Raids got little space on the nation’s front pages; for example, a Jan. 4, 1920, headline in the Washington Post declared that “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty when the enemy is using liberty’s weapons for the assassination of liberty.”

Over time, however, that assessment has changed. Though the FBI’s website notes that the period provided valuable insight into investigative procedures as well as the need to protect citizens rights, the government’s actions of a century ago are now accepted as having been an example of extreme overreach. “The ‘Palmer Raids,” the FBI admits, “were certainly not a bright spot for the young Bureau.”