I am the child of a stateless refugee.
My grandfather, Israel, was from Lodz, Poland, and my grandmother, Feiga, was from Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine. Each of them fled East from the Nazi advance – the only members of their families to escape and survive.
They both made their way to the Soviet Georgian town of Poti, on the Black Sea – which was beyond the Nazis’ advance into the Soviet Union. In 1943, my grandmother’s landlady thought they would make a nice couple, so she introduced them. They were married 6 weeks later. After the war, they returned to Poland to search for surviving relatives, without success. When pogroms broke out, they escaped to the West, and ended up in an American-run Displaced Persons camp in an Rosenheim, West Germany. They applied for a visa to come to America. My grandfather had an older sister, Bella, who had emigrated to the United States in 1930 and settled in Long Beach, California. She sponsored their application.
My father, Carl, was born in the DP camp in 1948. They did not receive the visa until he was three years old. By that time, the DP camp had actually closed down. Finally, in June 1951, my father and grandparents arrived at Ellis Island aboard the USS General M.B. Stewart.
I have grown up with this story. I always kind of wondered why it took my grandparents so long to receive their visa – but never looked into it. Over the last couple of weeks, as issues around immigration and refugees has exploded across our country, I have been thinking a lot about my own family’s journey.
I asked my father why it took so long to get the visa. He explained that the United States had annual refugee quotas, and that there was no preference given to Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust. So they simply had to wait their turn.
Searching online for information, I came across the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and discovered that more than 51 million passenger records have been scanned and recorded in a searchable database. I ran a query for the name Berkenwald, and was surprised to discover records for 21 people. All of them had originated from Lodz, Poland, so I am almost certain that they are all relatives. It is remarkable because we thought we knew about all of our surviving family members.
The earliest immigrant on the list, 21 year old Schmul Leib Berkenwald, arrived in 1906. Two Berkenwald’s arrived in 1921. (Remember that year.) One came in 1938, leaving from Belgium. Five managed to arrive during World War Two, a pair leaving from Spain in 1941 and a mother and her two daughters coming from the United Kingdom. Twelve Berkenwald’s came as refugees after the war, including my father, listed as Calel, and my grandparents, Feiga and Israel.
America is a nation of immigrants. Each of us has stories about how we arrived. Some people in this room are themselves immigrants, and even refugees. But the truth is, as the Jewish people, we are all immigrants and refugees.
This morning’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the final moments before our Israelite ancestors leave Egypt. The story takes a break from the narrative to record instructions for observing Passover. It specifies symbolic rituals that are to be reenacted every year. We are to slaughter and eat the paschal lamb on matza and maror, with loins girded, sandals on feet and staff in hand. We are to remove hametz from our homes and eat only unleavened bread for seven days. Our Passover seder today is directly based on these instructions given to Moses over three thousand years ago.
What does the seder recall and celebrate? The Exodus, after four hundred years, of our people from the oppressive Egyptians. Looked at from a different angle, it is a celebration of the moment when our ancestors became political refugees. They wandered for forty years through the wilderness, homeless and stateless. It was essentially a refugee camp, not too dissimilar from refugee camps in the Middle East today.
As the Torah progresses, it hammers home our memory of being strangers in a strange land. We cannot forget what it was like to have been aliens living in Egypt. Jewish tradition instructs us to recall our redemption from slavery every single day.
It is not only the ancient past. We have experienced persecution, exile, and statelessness over and over throughout our history.
That memory must make us compassionate to strangers living among us. The Torah repeatedly tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst. Citizens and non-citizen alike must be treated with the same set of laws.
These are the ideals of our tradition. In the real world, however, things get more complicated. Nations cannot simply throw open their borders and allow anyone who wants to come in. Governments’ primary responsibilities are to those who are already living in the country. So it is absolutely legitimate to screen potential immigrants before their arrival. The dilemma we face now is how many immigrants we ought to be accepting, and which ones.
I am certain that everyone in this room has an opinion about these questions.
Before we get too locked in our beliefs, I ask that we first consider a couple of things. First, let’s each think about our own family history. How did each of us end up in America? Those of us who are not immigrants, at some point had ancestors who arrived on these shores from somewhere else. What compelled them to make the journey? What were they leaving behind – were they seeking opportunity, or fleeing persecution? What kind of welcome did they find when they arrived?
It is important to recall our personal stories, because it reminds us that government policies have impacts on the lives of individuals and families. Just imagine if, when your relatives wanted to immigrate, immigration policies had been more restrictive and they were turned away.
The second thing we ought to all consider is the history of immigration into the United States. President Trump’s Executive Order titled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” did not appear out of a vacuum. Our nation has a long history. Before any of us takes a stand on this issue, we ought to know what has come before.
So please allow me to summarize the past 135 years of US immigration and refugee policy.
Since the founding of our nation, there have been many laws which regulate who can be admitted into the country as immigrants. Some of those laws expanded immigration, while others limited it.
The first immigration law to restrict a particular ethnic group from coming to America was passed by Congress in 1882. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. Initially, it was meant to last ten years, but it was so popular that Congress renewed it in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902.
Large numbers of mostly male Chinese workers had immigrated beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848. They continued as laborers for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. As the economy declined in the 1870’s after the Civil War, fear of the “Yellow Peril” increased. Chinese workers were blamed for driving down wages. Chinese residents had already been banned from becoming US citizens. The new law imposed a total ban on Chinese immigration. Anyone who left the country needed to have special certification in order to reenter. This meant that husbands could neither sponsor their wives to join them from China, or themselves go to visit their families.
The law was overturned in 1943 in deference to the US’s alliance with China during World War Two. The new legislation allowed Chinese residents in the US to become naturalized citizens. With regard to immigration, it expanded the national quota – to 105 Chinese immigrants per year.
Until the 1920’s, Chinese were the only immigrant group that was specifically targeted by law.
After World War One, huge numbers of Europeans were fleeing the devastation that had been wreaked on their homelands. Immigration to the United States exploded. At the same time, the US economy took a downturn as war-spending declined. The result was predictable: anti-immigrant backlash.
The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first to broadly restrict immigration. It marked the beginning of nativism in the United States. It established literacy requirements and created classes of inadmissible people. It banned all immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone, a huge swath of territory defined by latitude and longitude which included the Arabian Peninsula, India, Afghanistan, Asiatic Russia, and more. Nobody who lived there would be allowed in the country.
In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which introduced the National Origins Formula. For the first time, the US imposed immigration quotas. It worked like this: The 1910 US census included records of the numbers of foreign-born residents currently living in the United States, divided up by country of origin. 3% of the total number from each country would be permitted to immigrate each year.
The National Origins Formula was originally designed to be temporary, but it became permanent three years later when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924. The new act changed the formula. The percentage would decrease to 2%, with an annual ceiling that would severely reduce the total number of permitted immigrants. Instead of the 1910 census, immigration would now be based on the 1890 census.
Furthermore, relative percentages from each country were now going to be based on the overall proportion of all naturalized citizens, including those whose families had been in the United States for generations. This was designed to give a tremendous preference to new immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany, who were seen as racially superior.
It was also meant to reduce immigration by Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Africans. It worked as intended. 86% of the 155,000 permitted immigrants in the first year came from Northern European countries. The restrictions were so great that in 1924, there were more people from the undesirable countries that left the United States than who entered it.
The law was not controversial. It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 to 9 to 18, with strong bipartisan support. It was rooted in beliefs in eugenics that were popular at the time. One of the architects of the law, Senator David Reed, complained that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard – that is, the people who were born here.” He claimed that Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews arrived sick and starving and were less capable of contributing to the American economy and adapting to American culture.
In 1932, President Hoover shut down nearly all immigration. 1933 saw just 23,000 foreigners move to the United States.
Throughout the 1930’s on average, more people emigrated from the US than immigrated to it. Under the Mexican Repatriation Movement from 1929 to 1936, as many as 2 million people were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, many without any due process. Significant numbers of the deportees were actually US citizens at the time.
Most Jewish would-be immigrants throughout the 1930’s were refused admission.
Things began to swing the other way in 1952. The Immigration and Nationality Act changed the quotas, basing them on the 1920 census. It also removed racial distinctions.
Finally, in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments abolished the National Origins Formula. It put limits on immigration based on hemisphere. For the first time, there was a limit for immigration from the Western Hemisphere – 120,000 per year. The Eastern Hemisphere was given 170,000. It also established a seven-category preference system, giving priority, for example, to potential immigrants with relatives who were US citizens, and to those with professional or specialized skills.
In subsequent years, further refinements have been made. Many of these changes should be understood in light of the rise of globalization and the increasing ease of movement around the world. The 1980 Refugee Act established policies for refugees, redefined refugees according to UN norms; and set a target for 50,000 refugees annually.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan, established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.
The 1990 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased immigration limits to 700,000 annually, and increased visas by 40%. It also increased the amount of employment-related immigration.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed laws to expand the categories of criminal activities that could lead to deportation. As of 2013, this legislation had resulted in the deportation of more than 2 million people.
Recent years have also seen resolutions by Congress and the California Legislature apologizing for discriminatory immigration policies of the past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation movement.
It is a long and complicated history. Ours is a nation of immigrants, and yet we have gone through periods of time when the ideals of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution were not necessarily reflected in our immigration policies. The overall trend since the end of World War Two has been to establish a fair and equitable system of immigration that provides a steady inflow of people from around the world who will assimilate into American culture and contribute to the flourishing of the country. America has also been a haven for persecuted individuals who enter as refugees. That is why I am standing here today.
In periods of restricting immigration to the United States, we have seen some of the same kinds of fears expressed as we are witnessing today: Immigrants take jobs from Americans. They depress wages. They will not be able to assimilate American values. They will change the demographic mix of the country and disrupt American culture.
Are these valid concerns?
We each have our opinions. But I would urge all of us to acknowledge that these same claims have been made in the past when other groups have been excluded, including Jews.
A fear that is widely expressed today is that by accepting Muslim refugees specifically, we open the doors to potential terrorists who would try to take advantage of weak vetting policies.
That is the stated reason for President Trump’s Executive Order. By the way, if we are going to express an opinion about it, it behooves us to read it first. Some elements might be a good idea. The President instructs the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State, and the Directors of National Intelligence and the FBI to conduct reviews and submit reports of the status of various aspects of our current vetting procedures for visas and immigration and to create more rigorous screening procedures.
The sections that have generated so much controversy, and that should be viewed in light of our nation’s immigration history, is the outright banning of all travel by any person from those seven countries, the total halting of all refugee resettlement for 120 days, the indefinite halting of acceptance for all Syrian refugees, and the implied favoring of Christian refugees over Muslims.
Consider two questions: 1. Are these steps consistent with our nation’s values? 2. Do they address a problem that actually exists?
There is an underlying flaw with the whole thing. Terrorism-generated fear is vastly overweighted and thus leads to really bad policy. That is precisely why terrorists do what they do. They want governments to overreact.
How many people have actually been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by people born in foreign countries?
In September 2016, the CATO Institute, a libertarian thinktank, issued a report entitled “Terrorism and Immigration.” The author, Alex Nowrasteh, catalogs all foreign-born terrorists between 1975 and the end of 2015. He looks at how many people they killed, which countries they came from, and what kinds of visas they used to enter the United States. In that time period, there have been 154 foreign-born terrorists who have murdered 3,024 people on US soil. Keep in mind that 2,983, or 98.6% of them, were killed on 9/11.
114 of the 154 foreign-born terrorists did not actually manage to kill anyone. They either failed in their attacks, or were caught by law enforcement before they could act. 40 terrorists are responsible for the murders of 3,024 people in that 30 year time frame.
During the same time period, 1.13 billion foreigners entered the United States legally or illegally. More than 28 million foreigners entered the country for each victim who was killed in an attack. The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on US soil by a foreigner is one in 3.6 million per year.
Fear of refugees is unsupported by the facts. Nobody has been murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States by a refugee since the 1970’s.
Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, eighteen had entered on tourist visas. None of them came from the seven countries banned by the President’s order. In fact, there has never been a single person killed in a terrorist act on US soil by someone from one of those seven countries. Here are the countries of origin of radicalized Muslims who have carried out attacks in the United States since 9/11: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States.
The attack at the Pulse nightclub this past December in which 49 people were killed was committed by Omar Mateen, who was born in New York. The San Bernardino killings were committed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik. He was born in Chicago. She was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.
In light of our recent history, it would seem that the threat of terrorism is not an especially significant problem with regard to our current immigration and refugee policies. This is not to say that we should not take great care regarding who is permitted to entire our nation. We should, but we must not allow ourselves to be driven by fear.
The deeper question we must consider is what our personal experience, our national experience and the experience of the Jewish people over the last three millennia teach us about dealing with those who leave their homelands to seek greater opportunities. What are the values that we hope to embody? And in an increasingly complicated and quickly-changing world, how do we translate those values into actions?