Cantor, the only Jewish
Republican in the House of Representatives, has been very proud
of the fact that he has single-handedly blocked comprehensive
immigration reform in Congress.
But in reality, Eric
Cantor should be ashamed of himself.
Why? Because Cantor
himself might never have been born in the United States had
Congress passed restrictive immigration quotas at the time his
family emigrated from Eastern Europe (Russia, Romania and
Latvia) in the late 1800s-early 1900s.
The clamor to restrict
immigration from Eastern Europe had its beginnings in 1890 when
Henry Cabot Lodge, then still a US Congressman from
Massachusetts, sought to introduce legislation to establish
quotas. Back then, the object was to keep more Jews – the
Mexicans of yesteryear – out of the United States.
Indeed, the first to be
termed “illegal immigrants” were not Mexicans, but Jews. And
scores crossed over illegally into El Paso, Texas from Mexico.
As author Libby Garland
points out in her book, “After They Closed the Gates: Jewish
Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1925,” some Jews
even entered the United States hidden among crates of booze
being smuggled into the country from Cuba and Canada during
Surely Cantor must be
aware of the historical precedents such as the 1921
Immigration Restriction Act (which for the first time
in our history placed a numerical restriction on immigration) as
well as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which is also known
as the Asian Exclusion Act. When this draconian bill came
before the US Senate for a vote, fewer than ten senators had the
courage to cast a “Nay” vote.
Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL)
and himself a Jewish immigrant from Russia, closed his eyes to
the anti-Semitic aspects of the bill and embraced it. Why?
Gompers supported the act because he believed it would remove
the threat of competition for U.S. workers.
But what about Mexicans under the immigration law?
As always, they were targeted on the twin issues of race and
religion. Two decades later, Irving Pichel, a noted Hollywood
director, was blacklisted by the motion picture industry because
he had dared to make a movie, “A Medal for Benny,” about a
Mexican-American family during World War Two. Of course many
Mexican-Americans distinguished themselves by serving in the US
military during that conflict.
Had the restrictive
immigration quotas not been put into place, countless numbers of
Jews might have escaped Hitler’s Holocaust. As historian
Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for
Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. has said, in only one year
out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years in office did
he permit the full use of the immigration quotas for Germany and
other European countries with large Jewish populations.
But even then, bureaucrats
at the State Department led by Breckinridge Long (despite the
fact that Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s wife was Jewish, a
fact that remained a well-kept secret at the time), worked
against the directive.
Ironically, FDR made his
decision in 1939, the same year that the refugee ship S.S. St.
Louis with its helpless 937 German Jewish passengers, was
refused entry into the U.S. and Cuba. Most aboard the ship,
which was forced to return to Germany, were murdered in the
Holocaust. That tragic episode is the basis of Katherine Anne
Porter’s book and the subsequent film, “Ship of Fools.”
There was a clause in the
immigration law that would have allowed Jewish refugee
professors and students to enter the United States if they were
guaranteed a place at a college or university. But despite the
existence of this loophole, the State Department still blocked
many Jews from escaping to the United States. The quota was
Medoff has written at
length about FDR’s virtual total apathy to the plight of the
Jewish refugees. But FDR, who many Jews still regarded as a hero
of their cause, wasn’t alone.
Earlier, when a conference
was held at Evian, France to address the problem of Jewish
refugees, nations were asked how many Jews their country was
willing to accept. The official reply of Canada was “None are
The only country that came
forth and said they would accept the Jewish refugees was the
Spanish speaking Dominican Republic, then led by
General Rafael Trujillo. The tiny island nation said they
would accept 50,000 to 100,000 Jewish refugees and offered them
support if they would become farmers. But many were trapped in
Germany when World War Two broke out in 1939, and only 500 made
it to safety.
Meanwhile, the British
closed the door to emigration to Palestine by issuing Colonial
Secretary Malcolm MacDonald’s restrictive White Paper.
Following the 1938 pogroms
of Kristallnacht in Germany, Governor Lawrence Cramer of
the US Virgin Islands offered to accept Jewish refugees fleeing
Germany. The restrictive immigration quotas did not affect the
Virgin Islands because they were a territory of the United
States. Cramer offered to extend the Jewish refugees tourist
visas for as long as they needed to remain in the islands.
Contrast that courageous
action with that of the then-Governor of the Territory of
Alaska, Ernest Gruening. The territorial Governor,
who was appointed by FDR, and who had been a highly respected
Jewish journalist and editor of the venerable The Nation,
blocked the admission of Jewish refugees – even though the
program was advocated by FDR’s Secretary of the Interior
Harold Ickes. Why? Because Gruening was looking forward to
Alaska’s admission into the union, and thought that the
admission of too many Jews to Alaska might be used by his
opponents to block his political future. Alas, the strategy
apparently worked for Gruening, who was elected as one of
Alaska’s first two United States Senators and became an early
opponent of the US involvement in Vietnam.
If the story sounds
familiar Representative Cantor, it is because it was the basis
for one of the greatest “what if?” novels ever written: Michael
Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” You may even
have read it.
Simply put Mr. Cantor,
restrictive immigration quotas do not work. Your concern
that the US immigration system is broken has some merit – but as
I’ve shown above, it has been broken for almost 100 years.
Now is the time to fix it.
Look in the mirror, Eric
Cantor. Can you really face yourself?
Immigration reform is
not “amnesty.” It is now time to step aside and take the
leadership for which your position entitles you.
If the Cantor family had
never immigrated to the United States, you might have died in
Hitler’s ovens along with the Six Million.
There is no way that as a
Jew, you can justify continuing to uphold a policy that closes
our doors to immigrants.
It is not too late. Use
your time wisely.
Make comprehensive immigration reform your legacy Representative
– one that your family would have been proud to see. Use your
last months in Congress to do the right thing.
Al Abrams was an
immigration reporter at the Windsor Star at a time when
there were only four people in North America on that beat. He
has written about the Holocaust in “Special Treatment: The
Untold Story of the Survival of Thousands in Jews in Hitler’s