Special to the Journal
In 1907, immigration was the hot-button election issue. For the past twenty years, the United States had witnessed a
tsunami of impoverished people from Eastern and Southern Europe who filled the urban ghettoes of American big cities. These neighborhoods, described by The New York Times as “the filthiest places in the Western hemisphere,” were given names like “Little Italy” and “Little Israel.” Crime and prostitution flourished; abandoned children filled the orphanages.
The reaction was inevitable. As early as 1894, three Harvard graduates, with faculty support, founded The Immigration Restriction League, dedicated to closing immigration to the United States to “unsuitable races” that threatened to weaken the Anglo-Saxon stock that had built this country and whose Manifest Destiny to lead the nation was unchallenged. There was bi-partisan support in the Congress, and in a matter of weeks they got a bill to the desk of President Grover Cleveland, who vetoed it.
But the movement to cut off unwanted people from entering the USA couldn’t be stopped. The new science of Eugenics and heredity swept the nation. Academic stars from Johns Hopkins, MIT, Harvard and the University of Chicago testified before Congress that this Eastern immigration would corrupt the genetic pool in the United States and weaken the nation. One scientist testified that 50% of the passengers arriving on a vessel from Czarist Russia were mentally deficient. States acted when the Federal government didn’t; they passed laws forbidding marriage between races, and public figures from Princeton President Woodrow Wilson to Harvard’s Charles William Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell spoke of the danger of “racial mixing.”
In 1907, Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham formed another bi-partisan commission from both the House and the Senate; four years and forty-two volumes later, his report stated that “continued unlimited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe pose a serious threat to American society and should be greatly reduced in the future.” The national sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of shutting the doors, but Big Business still needed cheap labor, and the required legislation languished until after World War I. After the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920 and the terrorist bombing of the New York Stock Exchange that killed thirty-eight people, the balance toward restriction was finally tipped.
Between 1920 and 1924, the Congress wrote the restrictive immigration laws that culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, that shut the door on, among other peoples, almost all the Jews from Eastern Europe. With these “quotas,” a new chapter in American history was begun – something called “illegal immigration.” And among the first participants were hundreds of thousands of Jews desperate to flee the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Polish violence. This is the subject of Libby Garland’s book “After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965” (University of Chicago Press). The reader can’t escape the irony of where this Jewish illegal entry had its greatest success: the border between Mexico and the United States.
The United States in the 1920s was a nation pre-occupied with ideas of race and heredity. The English settlers who centuries earlier had created and then accepted their myths of the founding of a nation under a Protestant God, almost immediately rejected peoples of other colors and ethnicities as inferior. Benjamin Franklin hated the “swarthy” Germans, who served their purpose until the Irish Catholics arrived in the 1840s to take their place as a race apart. That they were followed by Italians and Jews at the end of the 19th century was only natural, as was the determination that they were intellectually inferior and could never be assimilated. As far as people of other actual colors, for them was reserved a category completely apart. The 1924 Act excluded Asians from any hope of citizenship. If you were black, you still lived under the threat of lynching and Jim Crow. If you were red, you were invisible. If you were brown, many of the states of the south and southwest considered you racially suspect.
It’s nearly a hundred years later. We have taken two steps forward, and perhaps one back. In this current political and racial environment, Americans have to examine themselves. Immigration is still with us. Some things never change, and the American Jews who got here both legally and illegally are part of that narrative.
Sol Gittleman is a retired provost and professor emeritus from Tufts University in Medford.