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Anna Sklar

Anna Sklar submitted this after seeing an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times about the late civil rights lawyer Ben Margolis and architect Gregory Ain.

In 1962 Ben Margolis saved my father from imminent deportation. It's an odd, but maybe not that unusual story. It's about the long arm of the FBI and the institutional memory of La Migra. Dad was sixty-eight in 1962 and had a long, tiresome history with the INS. He first came to the U.S. on the English ship, the Patricia, from Częstochowa, Poland in 1913. The city was a favorite of Pope John Paul II, who visited it both before and after he was elected. The pope who was born in 1920 and my father, born in 1894, never crossed paths.

Dad was first arrested in 1928 in Los Angeles by the police department's Red Squad for some protest he had joined at the time. A romantic traveler, he held many jobs and like many others became infatuated with the Communist Party after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He also joined the Worker's Communist Party the year he was arrested.

Long before I was born, he had been kicked out of the party for lack of discipline, but he always dreamed that some day our country would become a land of plenty for all. Not much of a theoretician--he had only completed the third grade in Poland--he was a devoted and loyal resident of this country. Even before his first arrest, he applied for citizenship but was turned down. He would apply six more times but was never able to get his foot in the door. A voracious reader, he taught himself English and had read the Constitution, as well as many books about American history.

In a time when it was possible for hundreds of thousands to immigrate legally, he received a green card, which was his only means of identification. He never learned to drive. He reported to the local INS office once a year for thirty-five years, was up for deportation during that entire time, and whenever he left the city he was living in, he was required to notify the agents. His last deportation hearing was in 1953 and by 1962 his file apparently was dormant.

July 27, 1962, early in the day; I think it was ten o'clock. I and my two small children, two and three-years-old, were home alone. My husband, Jerry, was out of town on business. The doorbell rang, something that just didn't happen very often during the day. I looked out the window of our house on Kingsbury [Street] in the San Fernando Valley. And there, across the street, a green non-descript Ford was parked. And I knew, I just knew that it was the FBI. They had certainly followed me often enough when I was a teenager.

I opened the door like a fool, and invited the two men in. I was a bit impressed that they had come to visit me. I was bored, home with two children, and I had recently attended a meeting of the local chapter for the California Democratic Council. I didn't connect the visit with the meeting until several weeks later. It was like something out of an old FBI movie.

One agent was young and the other was much older. They wore business suits. "Anna," the older man asked me, setting a tone of casual friendliness, "do you still believe in the ideas you had when you were a member of the Labor Youth League?" I was no longer a student of Marxism, and loathed the Soviet Union, so I said, "No, not at all."

The younger agent took up the next question. "Do you think anyone you knew then joined the Communist Party?" I thought for a few moments and said, "Yeah, some might have joined."

"Well, what are their names?" Now I was annoyed. "I don't know if they joined the party," I said, "and I can't tell you their names because they might not have. I'd be ruining their lives."

The older agent then asked, "Would you be willing to join an organization and report back to us on what people were saying?" Still treating the whole episode rather lightly, I answered, "Oh, you mean like Elizabeth Bentley?" Bentley was perhaps the most notorious stool-pigeon of the time that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo aptly described as "The Time of the Toad." She had been a spy for the Communist Party and sometime after WWII she switched sides and became a famous namer of names, more than 150, most of whom she shared with the House Un-American Activities Committee that had held hearings on the East and West Coast for several years. She was also paid by the FBI for her work.

The agents were delighted. "Yes, that's it." I was still astonished by their interest in me. "No, I can't do that," I said, now thoroughly on my guard. The young agent then said, "It'll go easier on your father if you cooperate." I got really frightened and told them to leave. They did.

A few days later my father called. He had received a letter from the INS ordering him to leave the country within ten days or he would be deported. He told me that Poland had already said they didn't want him back, not that he wanted to go there. He was prepared to go to Mexico, he told me. Dad was in his late sixties, had an irregular career as a part-time waiter, and no education beyond the third grade. He didn't speak Spanish and had never left the U.S. since his days with the Merchant Marine before his 1928 arrest.

That's when Ben Margolis stepped in. Margolis represented many Hollywood figures during the infamous period of the Red Scare, but he was less known for his pro-bono work for the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, especially the Los Angeles Committee. Dad had long been active with the committee, volunteering for a variety of activities. Attorney Margolis asked for a hearing for my father, He appealed the deportation order, citing my father's age and long residence in this country; the deportation order was lifted, and my father's file was finally closed.

My father was just one of several immigrants that Mr. Margolis saved from deportation to countries in Eastern Europe and Greece where dictatorships reigned; where many of these potential deportees undoubtedly would have been killed. Dad had appeared at six hearings between 1928 and 1952 where the government tried to have him deported. For those thirty-four years, he reported, once a year, to the Immigration Office wherever he lived; and if he left the city, he had to report that as well.

Many people know about the Hollywood Blacklist; very few know that thousands of ordinary people in 1940s and 1950s lost their jobs because of the blacklisting initiated often by the FBI itself. My father was lucky. So was I. The FBI frequently followed me in the 1950s, attempted to get me fired from at least one job before I got married, and, in 1997 when I finally got a copy of my file, I learned that they had continued to follow me well into the 1960s even though they reported I was no longer considered an active risk. Fortunately, I was born in this country, so I didn't need to hire Ben Margolis, but if I had, he would have taken the case in a heartbeat. I'm sure of that. It's just too bad that today's deportees can't count on someone like Ben Margolis.

Anna Sklar is the author of "Brown Acres: An Intimate History of the Los Angeles Sewers" (Angel City Press) and the former public affairs director for the city Department of Public Works.

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