When the Trump administration took the rare move last week of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to discipline the American Civil Liberties Union for helping a Texas undocumented teenager get an abortion, it was the latest salvo in what has been an unprecedented year of battles between the president and the 100-year-old advocacy organization, said the agency director.
In fact, when the ACLU’s national director Anthony D. Romero surveys the political landscape of the past 10 months, he sounds like a head coach or a four-star general mapping out a broad strategic campaign toward victory.
“Not only are we fighting defense, but we’re also on offense,” said Romero, whose group is working full throttle to defend sanctuary city laws, improve voter access and prevail in five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court on a variety of fronts. “Looking at it now it’s as breathless as we feared it would be. Every single one of our top issues has gone onto the front burner on a high boil – everything from immigrants’ rights and the rights of Muslims to reproductive rights to voting rights to LBGT rights. So this is an all hands on deck moment for the organization,” said Romero, 52 year-old native New Yorker whose family is originally from Puerto Rico.
Romero, who is scheduled to speak Monday evening at the Progressive Forum at Congregation Emanu El near Rice University, said the two major lines of response to Trump’s policy agenda are litigation and citizen mobilization, and both branches of the ACLU have beefed up in terms of resources and manpower.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle last week, Romero laid out the big picture for the organization, which is active across all 50 states and in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. A number of conservative policy groups and elected officials contacted by the Houston Chronicle declined to comment on the ACLU.
Support has surged
The ACLU has received abundant resources to push forward on new battlegrounds, and to continue in its century-long stance backing free speech, which dates back to its origins supporting activism by conscientious objectors during World War I.
Support for the group has surged in 2017, bolstered by a massive resistance movement that began mobilizing last November, he said. In the 10 months since Trump took office, membership quadrupled from 400,000 to 1.6 million and online donations skyrocketed from about $5 million to $85 million. The average gift is $70.
“This is an incredible moment for activism for ordinary Americans across the county,” he said.
The organization has spent some of that windfall bulking up its staff with 150 new hires at headquarters.
“Nationally there are key states on growth hormone and Texas is one of them,” he said. “They’re the ones you’d expect, big battleground sates with large populations – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico – all those offices are going to be growing.”
But the eager crop of current supporters would not stop at writing a check or handing over a credit card, he said. The requests to help prompted the group to set up an online tool where members can punch in their ZIP codes and get connected with house parties where they get trained and deployed for efforts in their communities.
“That’s how we got a sanctuary city law passed in Phoenix,” he said.
On the legal front, the ACLU has filed more than 100 court actions since the election on issues like voting rights, the rights of undocumented students brought here as children, the right to government transparency and LGBT rights.
Most of the civil rights cases before the Supreme Court were filed before Trump took office. Since then, the national government has switched from being aligned with the ACLU to opposing them – a good example is the states’ rights case involving a bakery owner in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
“It’s kind of breathtaking that the government is taking positions that are anti-civil rights enforcement,” Romero said.
He said Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to roll back justice reform will be an ongoing fight the group will be monitoring. He said, “Sessions will bring us back to the darkest periods on criminal justice reform.”
In the limelight
Romero was in the limelight, on breaking news footage and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah when the group took on the president’s Muslim ban. The ACLU brought 20 cases opposing all three versions of the Muslim ban.
He cited this battle against “government sponsored discrimination” as an example of the group holding its ground, using the courts to preserve the status quo.
“We stopped them dead in their tracks,” he said. “And they still haven’t been able to implement the ban.”
Romero said the Muslim ban illuminated an aspect of Trump’s presidency that sets him apart.
“That’s not how America operates. We don’t single out a whole community and people from foreign countries,” he said. “It’s government animus against a particular group of people.”
On the case of Jane Doe, the pseudonym for the 17-year-old asylum seeker in Texas who sought an abortion, Romero was alarmed at the government’s level of hostility to the reproductive rights of this one person, but said it was in keeping with Trump’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
“Look at the breathtaking efforts they went to deny a young teenage asylum seeker the constitutional right to an abortion -how they fought us tooth and nail in this one instance is just an indication of the fanatical zeal of their anti-choice position,” he said. “The idea they would jump into court on four or five occasions and appeal in this one instance – is that a good use of government resources, of government lawyer resources? Why are they expending so much gunpowder on this one case, on this one client? It’s because they are fanatical about this set of issues.”
In Texas, the ACLU has gone to battle against a voter ID law and in support of sanctuary cities, opposing states’ efforts to withhold federal funding that is not related to immigration.
The group also sued the city of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner this year over the ban of homeless people camping on city property. After taking the witness stand to defend his ordinance, Turner said at a news conference last week that he questioned the ACLU’s judgment in pursuing this lawsuit, backing living conditions that are extremely dangerous and a public health hazard threatening some of the city’s most vulnerable people.
“I’ve been a supporter of the ACLU for many, many years but I vehemently disagree with them,” Turner said “Sometimes we go too far, even in our advocacy and I would argue in this case the ACLU has gone too far in its advocacy that even its friends are asking, ‘What’s the end goal here? What are you trying to achieve here?’ ”
Backs free speech for all
While the ACLU has entered into new legal arenas, the organization remains active in supporting free speech no matter who is demonstrating, which brought new scrutiny when Nazi demonstrators marched in Charlottesville, Va., and a protester was killed.
Romero critiqued Trump’s statement that there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville that day. Nazis are despicable, but it’s vital for the ACLU to protect everybody’s right to speak freely, he said.
“They’re clearly looking to become martyrs of the First Amendment. They’re picking fights so they can say the liberals shut us down. Let their hateful speech stand on its own two feet,” he said. “Let’s strip them down naked to only their hateful ideology.”
Romero has become adept at explaining this nuance to new ACLU members who joined in the Black Lives Matter era who question him for defending the speech of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
“Protect them but contest them. Protect them but detest them. Protect them but overwhelm them. Protect their speech but don’t give it the value, the credibility or the impact that they want it to have,” he said he tells them.