April 6, 2005: Features
By Katherine Hobson ’94
In early December 2001, John Ashcroft, then the U.S. attorney general, testified before Congress. He addressed critics of the wide-ranging powers the government was seeking to use in the post-9/11 war on terror. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this,” he said. “Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.” Three years later, Anthony Romero ’87 still can recite that quote from memory — and with no small amount of outrage. Since he took over as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union a week before Sept. 11, his term has in large part been spent defending the liberties Ashcroft spoke of — except that Romero thinks the loss was not phantom at all, but very real.
He ticks off the issues: The surveillance powers given to the government by the USA Patriot Act. The detention of enemy combatants without due process or protections under the Geneva Conventions. The government’s numerous and error-riddled “no-fly” lists and its national security letters, which require some business owners to disclose customer records. All these things, he says, were and are ripe for a policy debate among well-intentioned Americans — who, he thinks, aren’t necessarily aiding the enemy if they disagree. “How dare he [Ashcroft] question someone’s patriotism?” he asks. Romero’s patriotism is questioned constantly, and not always in the kind of restrained language used before Congress. In the ACLU’s office in lower Manhattan, a letter is tacked to one of the office cubicles under the heading, “Hate mail of the week.” The weekly choice is a tough one. In addition to its loud and active presence in national security and privacy issues, under Romero the ACLU has also focused its considerable resources on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and the presence of religion in public schools.
“Where is the moral value in denying someone access in the hospital to his partner of 20 years? Where is the morality in requiring consent for a teenage girl to have an abortion from the parent who is raping her? Where is the morality when a soldier says it’s fun to shoot people?” asks Romero. He is intentionally using the politically loaded word “moral.” “Our mandate is very much what we began with 85 years ago — defending core American values,” says Romero. The debate over those values, he says, is one his organization shouldn’t run from, and one he believes it can win.
The confidence he displays, he says, has a great deal to do with attending Princeton. Romero was not born into privilege. He lived in public housing in the Bronx and attended parochial school as a child. Neither of his parents, who migrated to New York from Puerto Rico, graduated from high school. He has said that his interest in law was sparked when his father, who cleaned tables and floors in a hotel, tried to move up to a better-paying position as a banquet waiter and was helped by the efforts of his union. The new job let the family purchase a car and move out of the city, to Little Falls, New Jersey; it also showed Romero the power of having a good advocate at your side.
Even after his family left the Bronx, there was not exactly a well-beaten path from his public high school through the FitzRandolph Gate. Romero applied to Princeton through the auspices of a minority outreach program, and was intrigued by the focus on undergraduate teaching and the program in international affairs. Then he visited, and that, as they say, was that. “I remember coming with my mother to visit and seeing the canopy of trees over Washington Road and thinking, ‘This is so pretty,’” he says. He canceled planned visits to other schools. His parents, he says, still took some convincing. They were fearful — the tuition was close to what his father made in a year. But he received financial aid, including a Cane Scholarship from the University. The campus was close to home, which helped his case. He was a good arguer. Eventu-ally, he said, they softened, until at one point during the school year he came home to find his mother had framed a cover of PAW, because it pictured his residence hall.
Romero himself also took time to adjust to Princeton. He couldn’t figure out how so many freshmen, even during the first weeks of school, seemed to know each other, until he realized they had “prepped” — a term that was foreign to him — together. But he did find his niche. The housing office pulled off a feat of matchmaking when it assigned him two roommates in Mathey College. “I was the preppy boy from Baltimore, and Anthony was the hardscrabble New Jersey Latino boy,” says Ron Creamer ’87. J.P. Singh ’87 completed the trio, who lived together all four years, something Singh attributes to the fact that despite their differences in background (Singh was from India and had never before lived in the United States), they were all relaxed and laid back. But he says Romero was the most gregarious of the group. “Anthony is completely at ease with the broadest range of people,” says Singh, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. “He’s outgoing and friendly, but also very sensitive to people.”
Romero also found friends who shared his interests in international affairs and human rights. “We had similar political thinking in terms of engagement in the world,” remembers Anika Rahman ’87, now head of the United States Committee for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “We both knew we wanted to engage in the broader issues of our time and our day.” Romero, a Woodrow Wilson School major, remembers trying — not always successfully — to convince students to give up their dining hall meals for a day so that the money could be donated to development organizations. He spent a semester abroad in Colombia during junior year, also traveling to Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. His friends say the trip influenced him enormously, intensifying his interests in international affairs and Hispanic issues. Professor Henry Bienen advised Romero’s senior thesis on immigration to the United States from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and pushed him to excel in a way he hadn’t been pushed before.
Navigating Princeton, both academically and socially, wasn’t always easy, but Romero is adamant about the benefits of the experience. “The school opened up the first door for me to make a difference,” he says. “The financial aid, the academic rigor, the friendships I made: But for Princeton, I would not be the director of the ACLU at this age. It gave me the confidence to know I was as good as any of my classmates.” It also, he says, exposed him for the first time to the rules of power and wealth, giving him the self-assurance to move comfortably in whatever world he found himself.
After graduation, Romero headed to Stanford Law School, again rooming with Singh, who was studying computer science. He was determined to work in the public arena, and volunteered at the East Palo Alto Community Law Project — working so closely with some families on issues such as fair housing that Singh remembers their names to this day. Romero took the New York State bar exam, but instead of joining a firm he entered the nonprofit world, first studying civil rights advocacy at the Rockefeller Foundation, and then landing at the Ford Foundation, where he spent almost 10 years. He started as a program officer in civil rights and racial justice and later became director of the foundation’s Human Rights and International Cooperation Program, growing it into a unit that gave away about $90 million in grants in 2000 to organizations in the fields of civil and human rights.
The call from the ACLU, which was seeking to replace 23-year veteran Ira Glasser, came in 2001. Romero is the group’s sixth executive director, and to say he has a lot on his plate is a gross understatement (though he tries to find time to read for fun — mostly novels — and to travel). Romero’s agenda has been dictated by outside events, namely, the government’s response to Sept. 11 and its military actions in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The ACLU has closely scrutinized the detention of foreign (and American) prisoners, arguing that due process and the Geneva Conventions must be followed even when prisoners may belong to stateless terror groups. It has demanded under the Freedom of Information Act that the CIA and government agencies release files on the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The released papers have trickled out following court decisions in the ACLU’s favor; the most recent batch contained detailed allegations of abuse, including mock executions. In March, the ACLU joined another human rights group to sue Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ’54, saying he bears responsibility for policies that permitted abuse and torture. (The Pentagon has rejected the allegations in the lawsuit, stating that no policies or procedures approved by Rumsfeld were intended as or “could conceivably have been interpreted as a policy of abuse or as condoning abuse.”)
Then there’s the Patriot Act, legislation intended to find and prosecute terrorists and those who aid them; it was overwhelmingly passed by Congress but has since found critics on both the left and the right. President Bush says it is essential to the war on terror, and has urged Congress to keep it intact when some of its most controversial provisions expire later this year. The ACLU opposes that renewal, and also has fought other proposed legislation it says would violate privacy rights. Romero does not believe that the change in leadership at the attorney general level will ease the conflict between the Justice Department and civil rights organizations. Ashcroft’s successor, Alberto Gonzales, “is more personable, and we may get more access to him. [Romero says Ashcroft refused to meet with the ACLU.] But the policies don’t differ — it will be more of the same,” says Romero.
The ACLU has had internal and not-so-internal debates over the conflicts between civil liberty and the war on terror. The government changed the rules covering a charity campaign that encourages federal employees to donate a portion of their salaries to participating organizations; new language requires the participating groups to affirm that none of their employees are on watch lists of people with suspected ties to terrorism. Romero certified that the ACLU and its affiliates didn’t knowingly employ people or contribute funds to groups found on lists of suspected terrorists. But when the language later came to light in the media, it drew criticism from some civil rights advocates and from members of his own board, who said the ACLU was supposed to be fighting the lists for their vagueness and errors, not checking its employees’ names against them. Romero says the language governing charities was ambiguous, and that he interpreted it to mean he couldn’t knowingly hire a terrorist but had no obligation to actively investigate existing or prospective workers. He says he never would have signed the policy if he knew it to include such an obligation, given the group’s consistent and vocal opposition to the lists.
The ACLU withdrew from the fund-raising campaign in July after government officials made it clear that by signing, the group had an obligation to check its employees’ names against the lists. Now the ACLU is part of a group suing the government to reverse the law, claiming that it was never subject to public scrutiny and that it is too vague and violates the Constitution. It’s not clear how far a charity would have to go to investigate someone whose name is on one of the lists. An example Romero often cites: the name his mother uses for him, “Antonio Romero,” is on one of those lists. The birth date attached to the name on the watch list is different from his, but Romero points out that, under age discrimination law, employers cannot ask a person’s date of birth or age before they hire him. In past years, the federal charity drive had brought about half a million dollars to the ACLU.
The ACLU had a similar dilemma on its hands with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation; on the recommendation of the government, these groups, too, now require grant recipients to certify that funds won’t be used to support terrorism in any way or to promote violence or bigotry. “It shows it’s a complicated climate,” says Romero. “Even a group like the ACLU, which is used to navigating these waters, gets stuck in the web of the government’s war on terror.” (So did many major universities, most of which went on to accept the money after the foundations made clear that free speech on campus wouldn’t be affected.) The ACLU’s refusal to accept the language has cost the organization more than $2 million in grants.
By all accounts the ACLU is a difficult group to lead, with 83 national board members — two of whom publicly criticized Romero and his executive committee’s handling of the government and foundation matters and of the group’s information-gathering on donors. One New York Times story, written ahead of the ACLU’s board meeting in January, asserted that the dissenting members might face disciplinary proceedings on the request of one state affiliate. “That was never on the agenda,” insists Romero. “It would be anathema to shut down debate within the ACLU. The process is loud, it’s cantankerous, it’s conflictual, and that’s what makes us so unique.” (The national board proposed no reprimands and said later that they were never seriously considered.)
While national security and privacy issues have dominated the ACLU’s internal and external agendas, it is also pursuing other issues. Advocating for same-sex marriage is high on the list — and it’s a personal issue for Romero, who is gay and lives with his partner of nearly a decade. “It is breathtaking that we are debating an amendment to the Constitution that would enshrine discrimination,” he says. He says the chipping away of abortion rights, efforts to include creationism in science curricula, and abstinence-only sex education programs with religious overtones are also important civil rights issues. “In some communities, rallying together as Americans has been translated to rallying together as Christians,” says Romero. “That’s problematic for a country as religiously diverse as this one.”
The ACLU’s positions often make it seem like the official opposition to the Bush administration, rather than a nonpartisan group. But Romero says that the ACLU is also active in protecting religious groups from state infringement. The group has defended the rights of a religious group in Virginia barred from performing baptisms in a publicly accessible river, and of high school teenagers to use a religious statement as a senior class quote. People on both sides of the aisle question civil-rights and privacy violations by the Patriot Act and related legislation, Romero notes. “We make a mistake if we think the Republican Party opposes the civil liberties framework. There are good people on both sides, and our job is to find them,” he says.
One such ally is Bob Barr, the Republican former Georgia congressman who oversaw President Clinton’s impeachment hearing. Barr, a longtime privacy advocate, now consults for the ACLU through its Washington, D.C., office. Romero and Barr agree in their critiques of the broad reach of the Patriot Act and related laws, as well as surveillance issues. (Additionally, though Barr is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, he joins the ACLU in opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, arguing it should be up to the states to craft their own laws.) Barr calls Romero “extremely dedicated, very well-organized, and an outstanding fund-raiser.”
The ACLU clearly has tapped new resources in the past few years. The national organization took in $70.4 million in the last fiscal year, up from $22.7 million in 1993 (excluding money raised by state affiliate groups). Membership has topped 400,000, up from 300,000 in 2001. In the 24 hours after the polls closed on Election Day last November, the Associated Press reported, the group received a record $65,000 in online donations. And Romero has solicited far bigger amounts from wealthy individuals. “For a guy who came up giving away money, he’s good at asking for it,” jokes Peter Lewis ’55, the chairman of auto insurance company Progressive Corp., who has given or pledged more than $27 million to the group since 1980, including an $8 million donation in 2003. Lewis, an opponent of drug laws and what he deems government infringement on individual rights, has been an ACLU member since 1972, and says that Romero “works like a horse” for what he believes in.
His friends from college, many of whom live within blocks of Romero in lower Manhattan, agree about his commitment to the ACLU, civil liberties, and his country (though they also say the nose-to-the-grindstone image belies the fact that he’s as gregarious and fun to be around as ever). “He has a personal passion for justice,” says Rahman, his classmate. “As a Puerto Rican growing up in the United States with his background, being gay, he understands just how hurtful injustice is on a personal level, and how damaging it can be on a societal basis,” she says. Creamer puts it this way. “One of the things he said recently was, ‘You have to understand that I was always more patriotic than you were.’ He said, ‘I came from where I came from to Princeton University, and that couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world.’”
Katherine Hobson ’94 covers medicine and science at U.S. News & World Report.