Would My Grandparents Have Died in the Pogroms?
by Lisa Stiller
As I watch the events that have unfolded over the past several weeks, I can hardly believe I live in the same country as I did a year and a half ago. No, things weren’t perfect before. Our immigration system was broken, and the process used for granting asylum and refugee status was cumbersome, time consuming, and not carried out with much consistency or compassion.
But over the past 18 months we have sunk to a low that I never thought we could get to. Instead of trying to wrestle with the immigration system’s problems, which is at least what we were trying to do before, there has been a very concerted, intentional, overt effort to reverse course. The current administration is intent on doing what it can to turn our country back to other times when we closed our doors and sent migrants and refugees to their deaths.
Watching the administration actually take the children of undocumented immigrants away from their parents, place them in detention centers (some of which had the appearance of cages, as they were surrounded by chain-linked fences), and give parents very vague, if any, information about the location of their children was shocking. The reversal of the child separation order has been followed by a policy to just incarcerate all undocumented immigrants, contrary to the 1997 court ruling called the Flores Agreement that prohibits detaining immigrant children for more than 20 days. Since according to that ruling the detentions are illegal, Republicans in Congress have proposed legislation that could make this detention indefinite. Now the administration wants to take away due process for asylum seekers and immigrants. Meanwhile, over the past year and a half, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has rounded up tens of thousands of people, documented and undocumented, who are working hard to support families, get an education, and live productive lives.
This subject has personal significance for me. My grandparents came to this country in the very early 20th century, most likely fleeing persecution and lack of economic opportunity in eastern Europe. They got here before the immigration restriction laws of 1921 and 1924, which ended what was (except for Asians) a relatively open immigration system. Like today, these anti-immigrant policies were largely the result of rising nationalism, fueled in part then by the Ku Klux Klan. The quotas put in place by these acts especially affected immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Immigration quotas for various countries were set at 2% of the number of Americans in 1890 who had been born in those countries. These quotas intentionally discriminated largely against Jews, Italians, and other people with origins in eastern and southern Europe. These acts removed protections for immigrants who had been fleeing religious and political persecution, a population that consisted largely of Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms of eastern Europe.
What if these laws had been in place earlier? Would my grandparents and their parents have died in the pogroms?
The immigration restrictions of the 1920s had terrible consequences later. In the 1930s, when the world knew what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany, America closed its doors. We have all heard of the St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees, which after being turned away from Cuba and the United States, brought its passengers back to Europe, where hundreds perished. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and Austria were not able to come to the United States. A large number of these refugees probably perished. It’s likely that some of my distant relatives were among them.
The parallels are mind-boggling. Asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America have been coming here fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty for decades. In 1965, quotas were placed on Latin American immigration for the first time under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Yet immigrants from Mexico and Central America continued to come, if not legally, then as undocumented immigrants; the need for cheap labor kept enforcement inconsistent. But over the years, efforts have grown in Congress to address the continuing flow of undocumented immigrants, while the immigrants keep arriving in the United States, still fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty, many from countries experiencing violent civil unrest and exorbitantly high crime rates.
And in addition, the present administration has attempted to enact travel bans and restrict immigration, as in the 1920s, from countries where people are fleeing from wars and poverty that leads to death by starvation and illness. Trump campaigned as a hard liner on immigration and is fulfilling what he sees as his promise to his base by enacting executive orders and policies that are cruel, inhuman, and racist.
As we once again try to close our doors to people seeking asylum and refuge, turning them back to possibly face persecution or death in their countries of origin, I’m stunned to see us moving backwards in time. Where is our sense of compassion, decency, and humanity? The last I heard, the Statue of Liberty still says “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” According to U.S. law, immigrants who apply for asylum cannot be deported back to countries where they face torture or serious human rights violations. And Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Let’s not accept a repeat of 1930s America when we were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of European refugees trying to flee Nazis in Europe. We have been hearing stories of the deaths and arrests of immigrants we have sent back to their countries over the past decades. And who knows what the immigrants fleeing the violence of the Middle East and Africa, and unable to find refuge anywhere but immigrant camps, are facing.
Middle Eastern, African, Central American, and Mexican immigrants coming to the United States seeking refuge and asylum and escape from poverty must be welcomed. Congress has failed to pass humane immigration laws, and the election of an overtly racist president has allowed this failure to give rise to the present-day horrors we are seeing play out at our border and around our country.
This is why I cannot remain silent.
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