The crusade to deport an Australian-born labor leader
Peter Afrasiabi’s new book “Burning Bridges” is a refreshing dose of inspiration for attorneys and advocates who may feel wearied by their experiences in the justice system.
BY: SUSAN E. HILL
Peter Afrasiabi’s new book, “Burning Bridges: America’s 20-Year Crusade to Deport Labor Leader Harry Bridges,” is a refreshing dose of inspiration for attorneys and advocates who may feel wearied by their experiences in the justice system. Not only is it a fascinating historical account of the legal battles waged against Harry Bridges by the U.S. government, it also underscores the necessity for vigilant enforcement and defense of due process rights. Written before the national election of 2016, “Burning Bridges” comes at an especially apropos time, as many in our nation anticipate courtroom challenges to the scope and power of today’s political offices, agencies and branches of the U.S. federal government.
Afrasiabi’s book is meticulously researched, and draws you into the history and context of the U.S. government’s campaign of persecution against Bridges, an Australian-born labor leader. The book draws from historical documents and records to present Bridges’ altruistic desire to improve the working conditions for his peers at a San Francisco seaport during the 1930s and 1940s. A natural leader, Bridges soon became notable during the struggles for labor organization among West Coast longshoremen. Labor unionization was a leading issue nationwide at the time, and Bridges caught the attention of those opposed to his platform.
The labor struggle paralleled many of the ideals of Communism, and the Communist party in America was visible in its support of workers. Bridges sometimes worked alongside the Communist party to achieve acceptance of his ideals to improve working conditions. Bridges’ opponents soon conflated his efforts with the unpopular political movement. Ultimately, he was accused as a member of the Communist party, seeking overthrow of the federal government.
“Burning Bridges” delves into the backgrounds and connections of a plethora of officials who entangle themselves in the driven campaign to banish Bridges and halt his influence. It reads like a thriller, revealing an incredible conspiracy that reached far beyond the geographical region of Harry Bridges’ focus. His odyssey moves through a federal deportation trial conducted under the Department of Labor, a federal criminal prosecution, a petition for naturalization (citizenship), and subsequent proceedings to revoke his citizenship.
Two of these cases went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and set foundational precedent. Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135 (1945), is still relevant today in immigration law for its acknowledgment of the severe consequence of deportation and removal from the U.S.: “Though deportation is not technically a criminal proceeding, it visits a great hardship on the individual and deprives him of the right to stay and live and work in this land of freedom. That deportation is a penalty-at times a most serious one-cannot be doubted. Meticulous care must be exercised lest the procedure by which he is deprived of that liberty not meet the essential standards of fairness.”
In piecing together this unbelievable tale of no less than four separate trials over two decades, Afrasiabi researched into numerous government files. The book is thorough in its examination of the data, and it discusses court records and transcripts, agency files, internal government memos, correspondence, labor records, private reports, newspaper articles and numerous other sources. There, he found true gems and jaw-dropping revelations that expose flagrant miscarriages of justice at high levels throughout many federal sectors.
What makes this story remarkable — and particularly interesting from a legal perspective — is the sheer audacity of numerous government officials and witnesses who succeed at forwarding flimsy and fabricated evidence against Bridges. Attorneys and legal advocates will react in disbelief as “Burning Bridges” reveals the laughable credibility of witnesses, including government officials, whose testimony and falsified evidence nonetheless were used to further the campaign. Afrasiabi’s analysis shows the absurdity of the evidence against Bridges, and fairly questions how one individual can undergo repeated legal proceedings instituted against him over the same factual questions — even after the evidence was found to lack persuasion.
Afrasiabi not only assesses the evidence from a legal standpoint, but he explains the law and the legal implications of all the twists and turns that were taken during the trials. He addresses legal concepts succinctly, and provides easy-to-understand legal context. He covers the admirable rulings of some thoughtful judges, and the outrageous actions committed by ill-motivated prosecutors, arbiters and investigators.
Also delightful are the significance of historical backdrops that he relates, such as the political and personal animus of two Supreme Courts, the first woman secretary of the Department of Labor, and the inter-relationship (or lack thereof) of government agencies involved in the trials. Finally, he captures the courage of Bridges’ attorneys who faced overwhelming obstacles, financial sacrifice and personal setbacks as a result of defending him and advancing his rights.
“Burning Bridges” could be used as a primer in law school: an example of “what not to do” as an ethical and competent attorney or judge. This story will leave you stunned, in a good way, and re-invigorated to defend the importance of due process and your clients’ fundamental rights.