America is a nation of immigrants. Sure, that’s a cliché — but it’s also the truth. Except for Native Americans (who constitute less than two percent of the population), every American is descended from someone who came from somewhere else. So when we advocate slamming the door on immigrants, it smells a lot like pulling up the gangplank after you’ve climbed aboard. Even if you think it’s prudent, it’s nothing to be proud of.
Most American Jews are no more than three or four generations removed from the immigrant experience. Their grandparents or great grandparents uprooted themselves from the world they knew and made new lives in America. The more fortunate came seeking economic betterment, the less fortunate safety from pogromists or Nazis.
All four of my grandparents were immigrants, born in lands then ruled by the Russian Czar. They each came here in their youth — my mother’s parents with their families and my father’s on their own — because they saw America as a land of freedom and opportunity. They were working class people whose successes were modest, but their children and grandchildren, with the advantages of American educations, found their way into the American middle class.
My grandparents’ story is, in microcosm, the story of America. From the beginning, this country has welcomed immigrants from a wide variety of countries, promising that if they worked hard they or their children might some day claim a piece of the American dream. For Jews, especially, that promise has been enough — far more than we received in any of the other Diaspora lands in which we have lived during our centuries of exile.
We should not over-romanticize the immigrant experience. Many immigrants were shamefully exploited, working in dangerous occupations that sometimes cost them their lives. Some gave up and eventually returned to their countries of origin. But Americans, for the most part, accepted those willing to work hard. With seemingly limitless resources and an entire continent to conquer, there seemed little downside to limitless immigration.
There were always cultural tensions, of course. My grandparents knew little or no English when they came here, and like many immigrants, found that the language barrier limited their economic opportunities. Many immigrants lived in urban slums or rural enclaves speaking mostly with others who shared their native language. Some immigrant children, unable to master school subjects in what to them was a foreign language, dropped out before high school.
Religious differences also played a role. The predominantly Protestant establishment was not interested in competing with the newcomers cultural dominance. Entryways to positions of real influence in economic or political life opened slowly. Cultural homogenization — what is remembered today as the “melting pot” — was often the price of admission to the halls of power.
Nativist tensions were far from unknown, and anti-immigrant sentiment periodically reared its head, especially during times of economic stress. When the westward expansion ended, pressure to curtail immigration began to mount. In response,
Congress passed the Johnson Act in 1924 , establishing quotas for new immigrants based on their country of origin.
The national origin quota system was a transparent attempt to maintain the religious and ethnic balance that favored white Protestants and to prevent further expansion of the Jewish and Catholic populations. It was directed mostly against Catholics, but as it turned out, Jews suffered most from its devastating rigidity. In the 1930’s, as Hitler was consolidating power in Germany, the doors of America remained largely closed to those seeking to flee the looming Nazi threat. Neither Congressional opinion nor public sentiment would support significant loosening of the immigration quotas. We will never know how many of the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis could have been saved had America opened its doors in time.
The national origin quotas were finally repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Economic realities had changed, however, and the country couldn’t go back to the era of mass immigration. Instead of creating a coherent system that balanced our traditional openness with changed economic realities, we’ve ended up with a hodgepodge of family unification, refugee status and special occupational categories. The system’s complexity makes it an easy target for demagogues looking to blame immigrants for stagnant middle class incomes.
On top of this incoherent official immigration system, we’ve created a huge black market in immigrants who enter or remain in the country illegally. These undocumented immigrants, commonly estimated at more than 11 million, obviously fill an economic need, or they wouldn’t have come here in such large numbers. They dwell in the shadows of our society, often afraid to exercise their most basic human rights (including the right to be protected against criminal violence) for fear that any contact with law enforcement could lead to deportation. As has happened throughout human history, fear of the stranger has been exploited by bigots and demagogues looking for scapegoats for social or economic ills.
Many Jews feel torn by the immigration debate. We have too often in our history been the scapegoats of choice for tyrants and demagogues to feel entirely comfortable siding with the forces of xenophobia. Most of us, moreover, remember immigrant relatives and have a natural feeling of solidarity with those who have, as our grandparents did, sought the freedom and prosperity in which America has enabled so many to share.
There is, however, another side to Jewish feelings. It would be foolish to deny that there is a growing concern among some Jews that increased Muslim immigration will not only dilute Jewish political influence, weakening American support for Israel, but also ultimately (as has happened in some European countries), come to threaten Jewish safety.
The debate is further complicated by the effects of terrorism. Of course, the fevered rhetoric of the alt-right notwithstanding, the vast majority of immigrants, including Muslim immigrants, have nothing to do with terrorism. Still, the threat of terrorism is real. September 11th was not a nativist fantasy, and enhanced border security is a necessary component of the fight against terrorism. But the overlap between the fight against terrorism and the battle over immigration is a relatively small one, and we should not seek a small advantage in the anti-terrorism battle at the expense of millions of innocent hard-working individuals.
Border security, however defined, still leaves the question of what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Mass deportations of millions is neither moral nor practical. The current kerfuffle over the “dreamers” (those brought into the country as children), in particular, should be a no-brainer. Many of those young people have grown up here and know no other country. Some no longer speak the language of their country of origin.
Some of those trying to address the issues presented by illegal immigration claim that simple fairness dictates that those who entered the country illegally should not be permitted to “jump the queue.” Others insist that immigrants pose a threat to the job prospects of younger citizens, although it’s hard to find a reputable economist who would agree. Many immigration hardliners are sincere, but some of those most vocal have less savory motives.
There is no easy solution to the problems presented by our lack of a coherent immigration system. Reasonable people may differ as to precisely how to strike the balance between America’s historical openness to immigrants and the needs of native born citizens, between the economic dynamism that immigrants provide and the fears of existing citizens that they may be hard put to compete with newcomers for low level jobs.
But there is much about which reasonable people should not differ. There should be no disagreement about the constructive role that immigration has played throughout our country’s history. There should be no difference of opinion that our openness to so great a diversity of peoples is a part of the uniqueness of America. There should be no dispute as to the need for basic decency in taking whatever steps may be necessary to address these problems. Turning the “dreamers” into pawns in the political battle over the precise details of border security is reprehensible.
Some Jews may be tempted by political advantage to side with the forces of xenophobia. We must resist that temptation. The openness of America to a diverse multitude of immigrants is precisely what has made it a haven for Jews unique in the annals of our exile. We weaken that openness at our own peril.