Home > Uncategorized > The little-known story of Jewish illegal immigration – posted 8/14/2022

The little-known story of Jewish illegal immigration – posted 8/14/2022

I think it is fair to say that fear of immigrants in the United States is out-of-conrol. And it is not just in the United States.

Fascist and far right politicians have persuaded citizens in many countries that the greatest threat they face is not climate change or economic inequality. It is faceless masses at some distant border.The demagogic message from Donald Trump, Victor Orban and Marine Le Pen is the same: they will replace you, they will eventually outnumber you.

A May Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 3 in 10 worry more immigration is causing native-born Americans to lose their economic, political and cultural influence. Irrational fear of outsiders has skewed public understanding.

The lack of empathy for immigrants was recently driven home by the horrific June deaths of 53 people inside a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas. The truck did not have a functioning cooling system as temperatures spiked over 100 degrees. People wedged in like sardines died from heat exhaustion and dehydration. The dead included victims from age 13 to 55 who were from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. All were believed to be brought illegally through the border with Mexico.

I didn’t see much sympathy for these dead. It was just a blip in the news cycle. But the story is very reminiscent of Jewish experience. Just like Mexican and Central Americans now, Jews were once smuggled into America.

The story has been forgotten. One hundred years ago, Jews were a suspect class. Anti-semitism was widespread and much of the American public held stereotypical views, not too different from how “illegal aliens” are viewed now.

In 1921 and later in 1924 strict immigration quotas were put into place that greatly limited the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, especially Jews, who could come into the U.S..

The quotas were so limiting that the new laws prompted illegal smuggling operations. The fact of the quotas did not stop European Jews from wanting to come to the U.S.. No one knows exactly how many Jews illegally emigrated to the U.S.. Over the period from 1921 to 1965, best estimates are in the tens of thousands, possibly higher.

The story is told in Libby Garland’s book After They Closed the Gates. Smugglers brought Jews over on ships with forged travel documents. People crossed the border in Mexico, Canada and also by boat from Cuba. Havana was a center for smuggling from Cuba into the U.S. It afforded easy access to the Gulf and Atlantic ports, especially to points on the Florida coast.

Garland shows how complicated and multi-faceted the process of immigration was. Garland writes:

“Emigration was only one of many arenas in which Eastern European Jews relied on illegal methods. Buying and selling on the black market, smuggling, assuming false identities and obtaining forged documents were, particularly in the chaos that followed World War 1, facts of life.”

There was a dark side to the alien smuggling. Liquor bootlegging and sex trafficking were often part of the rampant illegality. The smugglers were often brutal. Garland says immigrants who did not pay up or who were naive enough to pay up front would get dumped overboard. Smugglers often robbed Jewish passengers of their valuables.

Immigrants often relied on friends and families in the United States for detailed instructions about the story they should offer which would provide the best chance for entry. Jewish name-changing was a rite of passage.

Given the experience Jews had with anti-semitism in Russia and eastern Europe, many people perceived illegal immigration as a perfectly legitimate choice. Desperate situations demanded creative responses. Garland says that being Jewish in Eastern Europe often meant having to engage in a process of creating improvisational and shifting identities.

Just as with immigrants now, Jewish illegal immigrants left Eastern Europe and Russia because of extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities and the threat of violence. Immigration restriction and the lack of a legal path to citizenship contributed to people turning to the smugglers.

From the perspective of 2022, knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, that Jewish illegal immigration now looks benign and it is never mentioned. Closing the gates left European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In retrospect, the extreme quotas that kept Jews out of the United States were both a tragedy and a giant mistake. How many were murdered who could have been saved?

Maybe Jewish history should make Americans reconsider the hysteria directed against Mexican and Latin American illegal immigrants.

No one supercharged the fear and hysteria more than Trump Administration hatemonger, Stephen Miller. Miller’s uncle, David Glosser posted this on Facebook:

“My nephew and I must both reflect long and hard on an awful truth. If in the early 20th century, the USA had built a wall against poor desperate ignorant immigrants of a different religion, like the Glossers, all of us would have gone up the crematoria chimneys with the other six million kinsmen whom we can never know.”

The last major immigration reform was enacted in 1986. We remain long overdue for new legislation which could provide a roadmap to permanent protections and citizenship for undocumented people.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jlewandohotmailcom
    August 15, 2022 at 12:42 am

    It’s such an old–but effective–story, isn’t it? Demonize those who have little to no political power so those who abuse power are free to keep doing so.

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