Immigration Is The Key To America's Greatness

Immigration reform activists protest with a sign reading 'Reform Not Raids.'
Immigration reform activists protest with a sign reading 'Reform Not Raids.'

Sometimes, the sound of a door slamming shut can reverberate across generations. Right now, in the presidential election campaign and debate about immigration reform we are hearing powerful echoes of a door that was firmly closed in 1924.

That year, nativist sentiment that had been brewing for decades led the U.S. Congress to adopt the Johnson-Reed Act, a federal law designed to severely restrict immigration. This legislation curtailed migration from Southern and Eastern Europe, nearly cut off immigration from Africa and banned outright the immigration of Arabs and Asians. This was a radical change to what had come before. To be sure, in the years between 1860 and 1924, the political climate wasn't always so welcoming of immigrants. But in that period 30 million people left their birthplaces and moved to America to fill US factories, build cities and settle America's west. More than two million of these immigrants were Jews: between 1881, when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and both anti-Jewish legislation and violence followed, and 1924, fully one quarter of Europe's Jews departed Europe, most of them bound for the Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, as they called America. This influx of Jews -- along with millions of Irish, Italian and Polish citizens--fueled the nativist sentiments that led to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. Part of the concern arose out of sheer numbers, and partly there was a fear that among these "tired, hungry, poor masses" there were dangerous political radicals.

As an American Jewish historian, I frequently point to the devastating implications of the 1924 Immigration Act on Jewish demography and politics. For all intents and purposes, America was eliminated as a refuge for Europe's Jews. Along with England's strict limitations on immigration to Palestine, this meant that as the situation grew increasingly desperate for European Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, there was simply no place for millions of Jews to go. The world knows the catastrophic results: six million European Jews died through the systematic efforts of the Nazis. When I speak to Jewish audiences, I usually point out how this cataclysm unexpectedly thrust the American Jewish community into a position of unexpected and unprecedented leadership for the world's Jews.

This year, I have been thinking about broader implications of the 1924 immigration restrictions. The provisions of the law significantly curtailed the number of people entering the United States, lowering it from 1907's record 1.3 million immigrants to less than 165,000 in 1925. In addition, they made it more likely that more of those entering were white by establishing national quotas from countries of origin and tilted it heavily toward immigrants from northern European countries. Even as subsequent legislation, especially the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ultimately undid these provisions, we hear strong resonances of 1924 in today's political rhetoric.

Here's the irony: In the 1920s, nativist sentiment was infused with racism that judged Italians, Poles and Jews as lesser races than Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock that had been the majority of voluntary migrants to America. Yet in the decades that followed, the children of all of these groups largely became absorbed into white America, even held up as exemplars. So by the mid-1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson began the Great Society Reforms that mandated civil rights for disenfranchised African Americans, nearly 85 percent of Americans were identified as white. It is unfortunate that many of their grandparents' siblings and neighbors had been shut out of the United States because of their inferior and potentially contaminating status.

This is the America that Donald Trump problematically evokes in his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." He harks back to a period of unprecedented whiteness in American life, achieved through punishing restrictions against populations perceived to be threatening--populations that within one or two generations were accepted. Once accepted, they benefited from structural racism to leapfrog over African Americans and many Mexican and Central American immigrants in social economic standing.

The transformed view of immigrants--from threat to citizen--shows the emptiness of the impulse behind the 1924 restrictions, and should guide us in our attitudes toward migrants today from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East: people that may differ appear different from us but have enormous potential to contribute to their new homeland. Formerly marginalized groups like Jews and Italians have transformed American society for the better. I am not one to engage in counterfactual history, but I can't help but imagine what might have been if more marginalized groups had been allowed to contribute to the great American experiment.

The immigration reforms of the 1960s opened our country not only to Europeans but also to the wider world, many of them people of color. This openness has proved an enormous boost to America economically, socially and culturally. We can return to the greatness of a welcoming nation even as we understand the changes and threats that an open society faces. We can find ways to screen for the few extremists intent on destruction and still be a place of refuge and hope for the masses of people who want to create futures for themselves and for us. Their desire--and our capacity to meet it--is part of what has truly made America great. It is up to all of us to make the case for open immigration.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.