The ACLU started out defending conscientious objectors during World War I. It would go on to be involved in many landmark cases. That includes battling the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and fighting segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.
New Hampshire’s affiliate of the ACLU got its modest start in 1968 with just a P.O. box and a group of motivated civil libertarians.
“And this small group came together and decided that they wanted to do something to make a difference here in the state of New Hampshire,” says Devon Chaffee, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. She took on the job in 2013 after working at the national offices. Under her leadership, membership statewide, meaning donors, has tripled, from 3,000 to 9,000 in the last three years.
And with that has come bigger ambitions locally.
The group has been out in front of major issues like border patrol checkpoints on Interstate 93. They’ve fought New Hampshire’s new voter residency restrictions in the courts. And advocated for a transgender anti-discrimination bill which became law this year.
At its headquarters located down an alleyway in downtown Concord, Chaffee heads up an all-staff meeting. It’s crowded in here. They’ve gone from three full-time employees to thirteen as of this year. And it’s easy to get lost in the variety of issues they’re taking up.
Jeanne Hruska, the ACLU of New Hampshire’s political director, says she’s got her eye on 200 bills leading into the state’s legislative session.
But her work goes beyond that, too. And much of it is driven by the group’s more recent focus.
“Especially after the 2016 election, you just can’t, care about civil rights and not engage in elections,” Hruska says. “Electoral outcomes can be determinative for the fate of civil rights. We have to be engaged in that space. And we are trying to figure out how we do that on a nonpartisan basis.”
Lately though, the national ACLU has had to defend against claims that it’s become too political. In a recent commentary for the Wall Street Journal, a former ACLU board member wrote the group had a quote “increasingly partisan progressive constituency.”
And last year, a New York Times Magazine profile of the ACLU from had the headline that read “Can the ACLU Become the NRA for the Left?”
It’s a notion Hruska firmly objects to.
“I think it’s inaccurate,” Hruska says. We’re not anything of the left, we’re not anything of the right. We’re not left, right, center... So I always get concerned when the press try and pigeonhole us one way or the other.
Here in New Hampshire, the ACLU has teamed up with some less obvious groups.
Greg Moore is the State Director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning political advocacy organization. He’s worked with the ACLU on several issues. But he’s also heard from conservatives who disagree on tactics.
“They appear to be expanding their issue grid,” Moore says. “And when you expand your issue grid and the number of issues you’re working on, you’re going to make some more allies and you’re going to make some enemies.”
One of the reason’s the ACLU has come under more scrutiny is for its forceful defense against Trump Administration immigration policies.
In New Hampshire, the ACLU launched what it calls the Immigrants’ Rights Project, which is aimed at promoting the rights of detained immigrants and representing them in court. SangYeob Kim is one of the ACLU’s new legal fellows. He says he wants New Hampshire to ramp up legal services for immigrants to match efforts in neighboring states.
“There is so much hunger in the New England immigration legal community,” Kim says. “They know that there is a huge gap in New Hampshire...So that’s where I think my work - and our work - has been able to close the gap.”
That work has focused on what’s called bonding out detained immigrants: Getting a judge to allow for the release of people jailed on immigration-related charges, some of whom have been held in New Hampshire without a hearing for months.
One of these cases involves an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo named Bienfait. NHPR is not using Bienfait’s last name because he fears retaliation in his home country, where he says his family is in hiding.
Bienfait was detained by ICE at a jail in Dover for more than a month after seeking asylum at the Canadian border. Just days before I meet him the ACLU secured his release.
I ask him how he feels about the ACLU and Kim, who worked on his case. He breaks his native French to answer.
“He is my salvation,” Bienfait says.
As for his view of America before ending up incarcerated here?
“I always say that America is the country of rights,” Bienfait says. “It’s a country also that protects people.”
He says he still has the same ideas.
Kim says there are a lot of people like Bienfait, who he believes are being held needlessly.
“I get a lot of calls and emails,” Kim says. “And whenever I get a call that somebody is being detained, somebody might be deported, i just don’t want to ignore them. I just do not know. Even if I cannot help, I try to listen and talk to them.
In his office, Kim keeps a number written on his whiteboard. It’s a tally of the number of people who’ve been released from jail since the founding of the Immigrants’ Rights Project about six months ago.
When I first met him at headquarters that number was 16. Since then it's grown to 21 people.