Anthony Romero is many things — an American, concerned citizen, voter and the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a post he’s held since September, 2001. Seven days before 9/11, to be exact.
A group that has argued more suits in the Supreme Court than any non-governmental organization, the ACLU has taken President Trump and many more in the executive to court over 200 times.
“I have a countdown clock in my office,” Romero said. “Each day I get to countdown the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until this President leaves office.”
In 2019, the ACLU is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
The organization was founded by a group of activists and attorneys including Helen Keller, Felix Frankfurter and Roger Baldwin as a result of the Palmer Raids during the Woodrow Wilson administration.
“If you look at all of these iconic flashpoints over the last 100 years you think: wow, this is an organization that has really helped define the expansion of rights and liberties, and changed the trajectory of the political discourse,” Romero said. “The ACLU 100 celebration is not about looking back as much as it is looking forward.”
Here in Texas, the state affiliate has five core dealings they are currently looking at: smart justice (ending mass incarceration and money bail), immigration rights, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ equality, and voting rights.
The Texas branch arose following the San Antonio Pecan Sellers Strikes of 1938.
Since then, some of their greatest feats, include the launch of MigraCam, a smartphone app to help people living in immigrant communities notify their family members and friends if detained in a raid or traffic stop, their distribution of “Know Your Rights” information at airports during the alleged “attempted Muslim ban,” and the successful demand and release of Rosa Maria Hernandez, a 10-year-old in federal custody, said Imela Mejia, the communications coordinator of the ACLU Texas.
Anthony Romero makes the case for talking about difficult issues such as immigration.
“Whether you are pro-immigrant rights or anti-immigrant rights, the thing you want most is the public and elected officials to truly engage with the issues,” Romero said. “The only way to engage them is when the public is engaged, so any effort to shut down that discourse or to corral it is troubling.”
The day the interview occurred, the ACLU tweeted that American attorneys and activists were allegedly being interrupted at the southern border.
“They’re holding them back, not allowing them to cross the border,” Romero said. “I mean, it’s part of another data point of the hostility of the Trump administration that they have shown to the press. When you have government policies at the border that are beginning to target lawyers and journalists, that’s of great concern.”
In 2018 during the midterms, the issue of the “migrant caravan” raised both fear and skepticism and turned into a decisive talking point that proved either helpful or detrimental to campaigns around the country.
Despite being a non-partisan organization, the ACLU also played a role in the elections, spending upwards $25 million on advertisements and their stances on policy.
“What’s different for the ACLU within the last couple of years is that we have had an exponential growth of members. The number of our membership has more than quadrupled. That means we have a lot more bodies to deploy,” Romero said.
Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU Texas said that “card-carrying” membership and staff have increased.
“We are sitting on more than 70 staff members. We had half that in 2016. The number of our card-carrying members has quintupled,” Burke said.
Nationally, this growth continues, too: there are currently over 1.875 million donating members, excluding sole volunteers—up from around nearly 500,000 in 2015, according to the group’s annual report.
Romero laid out a three-part plan for the next presidential election.
“(First) looking at certain key, battleground states where our issues are alive and well and where we can exert more political pressure on both parties,” Romero said.
Secondly, a focus on the ACLU membership being fully engaged in the political process.
“There are several hundred thousand of our members that did not vote in the last presidential election,” Romero said.
Thirdly, holding the feet of those in power to the fire.
“(I plan to) really nail (presidential candidates) down in terms of what they are going to do in terms of criminal justice reform, immigrants rights, reproductive rights,” Romero said.