Theodore M. Lichtenfeld
Rabbi and Hospice Chaplain in Orangeburg, NY

Do We Really Want Your Huddled Masses?

For many of us Jews, the story of our success in America, as well as the status of the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” retains a kind of sacred status. We all know its contours: the Shtetl-raised Jew arriving at Ellis Island, the “greenhorn”’s struggle to fit in, the 12 hour a day sweatshop job, the inability to keep Shabbes. But after a lifetime, or perhaps after a generation or two, the success story of the Jew whose family,has become fully American, experiencing anti-Semitism and diminished frumkeit along the way, but successful in business, free of the fear of pogroms, and reasonably respected for his commitment to his faith and traditions. This vision of America is nowhere clearer than the 1986 animated Spielberg movie “An American Tale,” where the Jewish Mouskewitz family, along with Irish and Italian mice, sing in steerage of the naive yet inspiring hope that “there are no cats in America.”

This year marks 100 years since America was that country.

On May 26, 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which ended the open immigration that many of us still see as an essential part of the American story. The act placed strict quotas on the entry of Slavs and southern Europeans such as Italians. These quotas allowed miniscule percentages of such racially “undesirable” elements. The percentages were based on the population of the United States more than 30 years previous, in 1890. Thus the law could fulfill what the U.S. State Department website says was the chief purpose of the act, to maintain the U. S.’s “homogeneity.” This goal had already achieved a number of previous victories, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. When the Johnson-Reed act was still being debated, almost all Asian immigration had already been stonewalled. Johnson-Reed ended it entirely.

The act had the practical consequence of consigning many Jews to death in the Holocaust. As we all know, Jews – who were not only Jews but most of whom lived in the countries targeted by the Johnson-Reed Act – found it incredibly difficult to get visas for America. Most of us know the story of the “Voyage of the Damned,” the ship St. Louis – full of German Jews – which both the U. S. and Cuba refused to allow to land. The Jews aboard were sent back to Europe, most of them to countries that the Nazis took over shortly thereafter. (I knew some of the survivors. Lilly Joseph Kamin, the widow of the spokesman for the Jewish passengers on the St. Louis, was a family friend.) The fact that President Roosevelt could have allowed the refugees in by executive order but did not, only underscores the anti-immigrant political pressures of the age, enhanced all the more by the Great Depression.

What forces were behind the immigrant quotas of 1924? Concerns about immigration had been around since before the founding of the country. Since immigrants were often willing to take the lower paying and more dangerous jobs in an era of rapid industrialization, largely unrestricted immigration was the rule through the bulk of the nineteenth century. During the period of peak immigration, between 1880 and 1920, at least 20 million people migrated to the United States. However, the arrival of so many foreigners naturally led to desires to curb their arrival. It is noteworthy that some groups we might have thought would be pro-immigrant were not. For example, the American Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers, who founded the AFL and came to America from Britain as a poor Jewish immigrant, supported the new quotas, in order to protect the jobs and wages of current American workers, especially White workers. He proudly touted his role in the 1924 legislation and preventing thereby more “coolies” from coming to America.

How should we contemplate a century since the forced end of the great period of immigration? In my opinion, it should be a cautionary moment. We need to readjust our expectations about what America is. Growing up, I thought of Ellis Island as the essence of the United States’ uniqueness. Those who opposed immigrants – the racists, those who felt they would take the jobs of “real” Americans – were history’s losers. The truth is more complicated. The United States has spent more than one third of its history now since the racists and the protectionists won the day.

Given the attitude towards immigration at this moment, when Republicans are set to renominate a former president whose rhetoric and policies treat immigrants as violent criminals, and when the Democratic party must “shut down the border” and speaks positively of immigration at its peril, it is tempting to just leave it there. But that would not be quite accurate either. The Johnson-Reed Act did not remain on the books forever. As Jia Lynn Yang writes in her book One Mighty and Irresistible Tide (as documented in a 2020 Smithsonian Magazine article by Anna Taylor), the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 reversed some of the worst excesses of the 1924 act, ending racial quotas and prioritizing immigration of skilled workers and reunification of families. Despite our romanticization of the great period of immigration, according to Yang the idea of America as a “nation of immigrants” was not really touted before the political movement supporting what would become the new law. Yang writes that she was surprised to discover how recent it was that being a “nation of immigrants” was talked about as a good thing.

In fact, as the Smithsonian article suggests, there has never been a time when large numbers of Americans liked the idea of more foreigners. But even before the 1960’s, the ideal – if not the reality – of being a “nation of immigrants” had its cache. One can see these mixed feelings in a speech Wendell Willkie gave in Indiana shortly after receiving the Republican nomination for president in 1940 (when come November Franklin Roosevelt would win a third term):

My grandparents lived in Germany. They were supporters of the democratic revolutions in that country, and when the revolutions failed they fled to the United States. How familiar that sounds! Today, also, people are being oppressed in Europe. The story of the barbarous and worse than medieval persecution of the Jews—a race that has done so much to improve the culture of these countries and our own—is the most tragic in human history. Today there are millions of refugees who desire sanctuary and opportunity in America, just as in my grandparents’ time. The protection of our own labor and agriculture prevents us from admitting more than a few of them. But their misery and suffering make us resolve to preserve our country as a land free of hate and bitterness, of racial and class distinction. I pledge you that kind of America.

On the one hand, although American Jews often blame FDR for refusing to let more Jews in, as in the St. Louis debacle, Willkie’s words suggest that no politician of the time would have acted differently. On the other, being a nation of immigrants (admittedly in Willkie’s context, White immigrants) was clearly a positive for many middle Americans even before World War II.

Most of us are well aware that the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” was written by a Jewish poet named Emma Lazarus. The poem played a significant role in linking the statue to immigration. But once the link was made, for American Jews and many others the poem, the statue, and the journey to a new land became intertwined as part of the grand American story. Nevertheless, hostility to welcoming foreigners, shunted to the graveyard of our minds as “un-American,” has always been just as much a part of the American story. In this dark truth I find hope, for it means that the pendulum can move once again. Even as migrants are shuttled from state to state and immigrant families still struggle to reunite, it is not a pipe dream that the beauty and power of America as a nation of immigrants will once again have its day. With every such period come moral advances that can never be undone. Recognizing how hard it is to create such policies will help us in our fight. It is a full century since the doors to America closed. In response, we stand with the tempest-tossed who demand with the psalmist, “Open to me the gates of justice. I shall enter them and thank God.”

About the Author
Rabbi Theodore M. Lichtenfeld is a hospice chaplain with the Visiting Nurse Association of New Jersey. He previously served as rabbi at Congregation Agudat Achim in Schenectady, NY, and at pulpits in New Orleans and New Jersey. Rabbi Lichtenfeld completed a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with New York Presbyterian Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, and also holds ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. Rabbi Lichtenfeld, a Philadelphia native, lives in Rockland County, NY, with his wife and three children.