Even though attitudes in the Jewish community towards illegal immigration appear to have hardened, a February report published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggests that the Jewish immigration experience over the past century has more in common with present-day migrants than many Jews recognize or fully appreciate.
Each year, the DHS' Office of Immigration Statistics gamely puts out "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States." Even the government statisticians acknowledge the limitations of their data collection: keeping an accurate count of immigrants, particularly those here illegally, is far from an exact science. The experts assume that their estimate of illegal immigrants may be 10 percent lower than the actual numbers. Nonetheless, using the same methodology from year to year provides at the very least a good indication of trends. They show that between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. illegal immigrant population dropped by 8.5 percent--from 11.8 million to 10.8 million.
In short, the numbers show what anyone who is basically sentient could guess. American jobs started drying up in 2007 when the housing bubble burst and the construction industry fell apart. As the Great Recession hit and employment prospects plunged, the population of illegal immigrants, most of whom come here to work, naturally shrank. The contraction reversed a trend. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of illegal immigrants had climbed by nearly 39 percent, virtually tracking the growth rate of the U.S. economy, and defying the massive buildup of the nation's immigration and border enforcement.
What's all that got to do with the Jewish experience? Most American Jews are Ashkenazi descendants of Eastern Europeans who immigrated between 1881 and 1914, the beginning of World War I. Jews in the Russian Empire had been forced to live inside the Pale of Settlement, which included parts of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. They were forbidden from living in certain cities within the Pale and from holding certain occupations. Pogroms, anti-Jewish riots that occurred during the period, raged in hundreds of towns. Mobs killed more than 2,000 people, destroyed homes, and injured scores. The three decades saw a mass departure of Russian Jews. Two million of them--nearly one in two residents of the Pale--went abroad, 1.5 million to the United States.
And that's where, in the minds of many Jews, the modern day exodus story often ends. The common wisdom engrained in popular Jewish consciousness is that Eastern European Jews immigrated because of persecution. This Twitter version of history is summarized, for instance, in the online Beginner's Guide to Jewish Genealogy: "The majority of these Jewish immigrants were from Russia and Russian-held portions of Poland, escaping discrimination and pogroms (extreme persecutions)."
The reality is more complicated. As the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg put it in The Jews in America, "In fact, pogroms (physical attacks on Jews) played a minor role as a cause of the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The dominant cause of mass migration was poverty." Hertzberg suggested that the widely accepted persecution explanation is a sort of mythologized vision of the past. "[I]t is much better to imagine that one's grandparents were already the 'better people' in Russia and that America was the haven of refuge from anti-Semitism," he wrote. "The truth is starker and more heroic. The Jews from Russia arrived in the United States penniless and largely uneducated..."
In a 2007 book chapter, "Were Jews Political Refugees or Economic Migrants?," UCLA economics professor Leah Platt Boustan provides a painstakingly thorough debunking of the "common belief that the exodus from Russia was a uniquely Jewish event and thus cannot be incorporated into a general model of migration." Boustan compares migration flows of Russian Jews and of Austro-Hungarians and Italians during the same period, showing that the "timing of Jewish migration, like that of other migrations to the New World, responded to economic conditions." Boustan doesn't discount the push of anti-Semitism and political hardship, but does make the case that persecution along with the combination of economic adversity in Russia and promise in the United States spurred the move to what the predominantly Yiddish-speaking immigrants called die goldene medina, the "golden land."
That view directly contradicts the perspective of Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., who has emerged as a leading Jewish voice in favor of more restrictionist immigration policies. "Jews during the Great Wave fled pogroms, oppression, and discrimination," he wrote recently. "There's no commonality between the Jewish refugees of that era and today's economic migrants." He concluded, "[A] growing majority of American Jews opposes illegal immigration because a confident American identity makes them empathize with fellow Americans first, not immigrants."
It's a potent argument, one that essentially calls on assimilated American Jews, blinded by the fog of historical memory, to disregard their own ancestral experiences and draw an artificial line between us and them. Steinlight rightly assumes that identity breeds empathy. If we can somehow disassociate our own experiences from those of more recent border crossers, we can try to convince ourselves that those people are not like us. Empathy does loom large in the Jewish experience, and public opinion surveys show that Jews tend to be comparatively tolerant of illegal immigrants. But attitudes may be changing. A 2007 poll by the American Jewish Committee showed that 67 percent of Jews backed some form of legalization program for illegal immigrants. By December 2009, according to a CIS survey, the percentage of Jews supporting a path to legalization was down to 60 percent.
In this regard, the changing Jewish opinion is in line with historic patterns of attitudes towards immigration. Namely, depressed economies are often accompanied by anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation. But Jews would do well to draw a lesson from our own history and resist the temptation to scapegoat and demonize those whose crimes consist mainly of crossing political boundaries in search of better lives. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were viewed not only as "hereditary defectives," they were considered dirty, depraved, disease ridden, crime prone, a burden on society, and incapable of assimilation. If anything, the Jewish experience points to the need to address root causes of immigration, and to avoid the folly of treating immigrants as occupying invaders. And if the lessons of the last century aren't sufficient, in dealing with illegal immigrants, Jews of conscience can benefit from the guidance of Hillel some 2,000 years ago: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010.