Reflections on immigration to America
August 16, 2019
(JNS)—Given the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, I decided to reflect upon my own personal immigration story.
At the outset, I want to compliment the president for sticking to his guns and doing more than any president of the United States to correct a very complex minefield of an issue. It is also important to point out over and over again that U.S. President Donald Trump made it patently obvious from the get-go that building a wall at the border with Mexico was one of his priorities. He was elected with this signature campaign promise. This was abundantly clear to everyone and America gave him a mandate to do so.
My family was fortunate to have been allowed into this great country, that my grandparents called the “Goldena Medina”(the Golden Country). They indeed believed the streets were paved with gold. Truth be told, it wasn’t easy for Jews to immigrate to America. Starting in 1924 and continuing throughout World War II there was a quota on the number of Jews allowed in each year.
If more Jews had been allowed in, fewer would have been killed in the Nazi gas chambers. The quota prevented passenger boats like the MS St. Louis in 1939, for example, from dropping off their human cargo. The majority its passengers died in the gas chambers.
In 1924 Congress passed a law to set immigration quotas by country and limit total immigration to 164,000 per year. This was enacted to limit mostly Jewish, Asian and African immigrants.
Between 1900-15, an average of 900,000 people immigrated to America per year. Between 1915-1924, only 450,000 people per year were let in. After the 1924 law, only 145,000 were allowed in and of these only 1.8 percent were from Asia, Africa, or Southern or Eastern Europe. The 1924 law set the limit at 25,957 immigrants from Germany. In 1933, only 12,400 visas were issued. Some 82,000 Jews were on a waiting list, which grew each year. By 1940, more than 300,000 Jews were on the list. Most were killed by the Nazis.
My paternal grandfather was lucky because he came to the United States in 1910. From 1900 to 1915, the U.S. government placed no overall limits on the number of immigrants allowed in. He came to America because after fighting for the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, risking his life and nearly getting killed, he came back to his village of Zhitomer in the Ukraine and almost immediately was attacked by the Cossacks in a pogrom.
He had had enough of Russia and immediately made plans to leave for America. He came with two brothers: One settled in Memphis, one in St. Louis and one in Philadelphia.
My maternal grandfather came to America in 1917 after being wounded in World War I. Many Jews were drafted into the Austrian army during the war, all of whom were sent to the front lines. Many were killed as a result. Many Jews cut off their trigger finger to avoid being drafted. My grandfather was fortunate and made it to America.
Many Jews were not able to enter America during this time. I recently ran into a man whose grandfather left Poland in 1916 and who, because he could not enter America, went to the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, because of the situation he assimilated; his grandson is not Jewish. This story has repeated itself over and over.
Because WWI caused such upheaval my great-grandfather emigrated to Palestine. Unfortunately, the war brought great famine everywhere. He died in 1917 of starvation in Jerusalem.
The immigration picture has improved significantly since the end of World War II.
In 2015, the number of persons obtaining lawful permanent Resident Status in the United States was 1,051,031. The 10 most notable countries of origin, which might surprise some pundits, include: 1) Mexico, 158,619; 2) People’s Republic of China, 74,558; 3) India, 64,116; 4) Philippines, 56,478; 5) Dominican Republic, 50,610; 6) Vietnam, 30,832; 7) El Salvador, 19,487; 8) Pakistan, 18,057; 9) Jamaica, 17,642; Colombia, 17,376; South Korea, 17,138; and Haiti 16,967; and 10) Bangladesh 13,570. Somalia had 6,796 people obtain permanent resident status.
Immigration is good for America. However, as in previous generations it must be done legally, with due process. The million or so immigrants per year who have come to America and were granted lawful permanent resident status have done it the right way. Why should any nation tolerate anything less?
Dr. Joseph Frager is 1st Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel.