The defendants were all pro-Palestinian activists, but it wasn’t clear what they’d been arrested for. Soon the government conceded it would not introduce criminal charges, instead seeking to deport the group by alleging material support to a communist organization—an ancient Red Scare statute that would soon be declared unconstitutional. The case quickly became a mess, and in the end, 20 years of legal wrangling would pass before a judge would call the case “an embarrassment to the rule of law.” But in the first days of the defense, the lawyers for the men who would become known as the LA Eight were turning over a greater puzzle: why their clients had been targeted in the first place.
And then the document arrived.
It was a small manila envelope. No return address. No note. Inside, a typewritten government memo, barely legible. The package had been sent to one of the attorneys for the LA Eight, who rushed it to Marc Van Der Hout, his co-counsel. Van Der Hout was bewildered as he skimmed through it.
The 40-page memo described a government contingency plan for rounding up thousands of legal alien residents of eight specified nationalities: Libya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. Emergency legal measures would be deployed—rescinding the right to bond, claiming the privilege of confidential evidence, excluding the public from deportation hearings, among others. In its final pages, buried in a glaze of bureaucratese, the memo struck its darkest note: A procedure to detain and intern thousands of aliens while they awaited what would presumably become a mass deportation. Van Der Hout read the final pages carefully. The details conjured a vivid image of a massive detainment facility: 100 outdoor acres in the backwoods of Louisiana, replete with specifications for tents and fencing materials, cot measurements and plumbing requirements.
Four decades had passed since the U.S. closed its World War II-era internment camps, a disgraceful chapter when, without cause, the federal government forcibly relocated 120,000 Japanese Americans, imprisoning them across an archipelago of camps pocking the American South and West. Now, a working group in the Reagan administration was grasping for a similar-sounding measure. In 1987, the targets would not be Japanese Americans, but Middle Eastern aliens, lawful U.S. residents without the protection of green cards.
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