ACLU’s Anthony Romero Urges: “Hold America’s Feet to the Fire”
By Donald Gilpin
Sharing the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) strategy of litigation and political advocacy, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero urged an audience of about 150 at Princeton University’s Friend Center on March 4 not to get discouraged, to stay engaged, and, in approaching the 2020 election, to hold candidates’ feet to the fire and hold them accountable.
In outlining the “most important issues confronting our country,” Romero stated, “There’s something enormously noble about being in this fight now, daring to push forward with optimism and energy.”
The ACLU has filed 207 legal actions against the Trump administration in the past two years and has helped to mobilize millions of Americans in opposition to President Trump’s policies, but Romero warned that the greatest danger goes beyond Trump.
The assaults on civil liberties — voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights — are not Trump-era developments, he said. “It bothers me when people talk as if Donald Trump is the entire problem. That is not the case. Trump did not start this parade, even though he jumped out ahead to lead it. When he leaves the Oval Office, there will be a whole movement of his acolytes — his followers, to continue his xenophobic, anti-civil rights, and anti-civil liberties policies, to carry out his agenda.”
Romero continued, “Even when he goes, the Trump presidency is a super fund site of toxic waste on civil liberties and civil rights that will take us years to clean up. Even if he is voted out in two years, his legacy and impact on the political landscape is going to be enduring.”
In this context Romero stated that it is the ACLU’s job “to hold America’s feet to the fire. We hold the mirror up. If you believe in liberty and justice for all, then prove it. Let’s see you walk the walk and talk the talk. We still have a long way to go.”
Romero expressed concern that many of today’s leaders may lack a genuine commitment to progress. “What worries me about the current climate is that many of our leaders no longer seem to share that core commitment to basic principles. There is a systematic effort underway to push people back across some symbolic or literal or very real border.”
In highlighting the current priorities of the ACLU, where he has been at the helm for 18 years, Romero noted “three white hot issues”: immigrant rights, voting rights, and abortion rights.
The ACLU is involved with 87 federal class action lawsuits relating to immigration, including such issues as the Muslim ban, the separation of parents and children at the border, and the federal emergency order. The ACLU has helped to bring about an overturning of the policy separating parents and children and has helped to reunite 2,600 of the 3,000 parents separated from their children, though, Romero noted, they are worried that there may be thousands more parents and children who were separated before the government made the policy public.
In the area of voting rights, Romero stated that the ACLU in focusing on the swing states of Florida, Michigan, and Nevada, had succeeded through voter registration, lawsuits and other means in expanding the right to vote for the first time to more than two million people in those three states alone.
In the battle for abortion rights, Romero noted, the ACLU helped to defeat over 25 restrictions on abortions in a dozen different states, and, through litigation, had kept open the last clinic that performs abortions in the state of Kentucky. “Abortion rights are under assault by the very same people who feared the power of women when they first got the right to vote,” Romero said.
Romero went on to discuss the ACLU’s campaign to depopulate prisons and jails by 50 percent, claiming that “criminal justice reform can give us a way to demonstrate to the American people that bipartisan work is still possible.”
A 1987 Princeton University graduate who majored in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which sponsored Monday’s talk, Romero recalled his arrival on campus as a freshman in 1983, how his whole family — parents, sister, and grandmother — accompanied him.
Romero, who is the first Latino and openly gay man to serve as executive director of the ACLU, remembered that moment at Princeton more than 36 years ago as “a moment when we as a family had crossed an important border. We saw the future with hope and optimism, and would not ever be pushed back.”
He went on to describe how Princeton helped to shape his thinking as he pursued his career in law and work with the ACLU. “Princeton helped enforce the idea of community. Early on we understood the importance of hearing people from different viewpoints with very different lives.”
Romero noted that he became an activist on campus and came to realize the importance of “pushing boundaries and making space for people of different viewpoints.”
During the past two years, Romero reported, the ACLU has seen “incredible growth, energy and dynamism, thanks to Donald Trump.” While the membership grew from 280,000 to 550,000 during the George W. Bush presidency — and dropped to 400,000 with Obama in the White House — since the Trump election it has grown to 1.875 million, with the average age of members dropping by more than 24 years.