“The United States is built upon the principles and ideals of equality, justice and tolerance. It is one of the great countries of the world, and it owes its progress and greatness largely to the immigrant,” declared Judge Hugo Pam, of the Superior Court of Cook County, Ill.
Speaking at a meeting on immigration in the Minneapolis courthouse, Judge Pam added, “America cannot at this stage surround itself with a wall to keep out the very elements which have built this country and made for its greatness. It cannot continue to be one of the great countries of the world if it pursues such a course.”
Of course, immigration and a border wall are topics of the moment. As most readers know, President Trump has shut down much of the federal government over his demand that Congress appropriate $5.7 billion for a wall (or steel-slat barrier) on the southern border.
You might be surprised to learn that the remarks by Judge Pam came at a meeting held in 1924. An article titled “The Immigration Protest Meeting” appeared in the Jewish World’s March 7, 1924, edition. In addition to Judge Pam, speakers representing “the Poles, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Jews and Ukrainians addressed the meeting.”
The Minneapolis meeting was called to protest the “proposed Johnson immigration bill,” which this paper, in a news story with a viewpoint, called “the most brazenly un-American piece of legislation ever introduced in the halls of Congress.”
According the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, The Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as The Johnson-Reed Act) “limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 followed the “first widely restrictive immigration law,” which was passed by Congress in 1917. That law imposed “a literacy test that required immigrants over 16 years old to demonstrate basic reading comprehension in any language,” according to the State Department historian. “It also increased the tax paid by new immigrants upon arrival and allowed immigration officials to exercise more discretion in making decisions over whom to exclude.”
What’s old is new again, and now we’re saddled with a president intent on realizing a benighted campaign promise to build a “great wall” on the border with Mexico, which ostensibly would protect Americans from an “invasion” of drug dealers, rapists and murderers. In tweets and speeches, Trump also refers to a “humanitarian crisis” on the southern border.
Indeed, there is a humanitarian crisis — it’s one the Trump administration created last year when they enforced a “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers being arrested. Children were separated from their parents. Americans, and people around the world, were shocked by news reports of young children being confined in chain-link cages in warehouse buildings for extended periods. Some children were penned up for weeks in these cages without a bed or shower.
In December, NPR’s Michel Martin interviewed Dr. Scott Allen, a specialist in internal medicine from Riverside, Calif., who said that pediatric care was sorely lacking in U.S. government-run detention facilities.
“We would say that the policy of detaining innocent children as part of our immigration program is entirely unnecessary and unjustifiable because of these logistical problems that we’re describing, but also that it’s well-known in the medical community that the detention of children is harmful to their health,” Dr. Allen said. “So at some point, there is the question of, why are we doing this as a country? Why are we putting innocent children in harm’s way?”
Michel Martin also talked to Dr. Pamela McPherson, a child psychologist in Shreveport, La., who spoke to the trauma inflicted on these children seeking safety in the United States.
McPherson noted that “trauma can really have a lasting impact on a child’s development. It can include impairment in the developmental milestones, thinking, emotional regulation and even the ability to form healthy relationships. Trauma may cause some children to regress and lose skills, or it may cause other children to mature too quickly and take on adult behaviors too early.”
The Trump administration is harming children and ruining the lives of poor bedraggled asylum seekers fleeing poverty and gang violence in Central America. It is legal under U.S. and international law to file for asylum; however, the president finds that demonizing these poor souls plays well to his base. Reportedly, 75 percent of Republicans think that illegal immigration is the No. 1 issue facing this country. I would prioritize climate change, racial disparities and wealth inequality ahead of illegal immigration, but that’s me.
It also should be pointed out that immigration from Mexico has been declining over recent years, as has the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., according to reports from the Pew Research Center and other sources. It all adds up to a manufactured crisis that Trump has politicized in a misguided strategy to shore up his dwindling support. He has backed himself into a corner with the government shutdown — “I will take the mantle,” he told Pelosi and Schumer — and it’s difficult to see how he will resolve this mess of his own making.
In 1924, Congress sought to shut down Jewish immigration, along with those coming to these shores from southern and eastern Europe, and from Asia. The Jewish World pointed out, regarding the Johnson immigration bill, “It is no secret that it is aimed directly at the Jews and Catholics.”
As I have mentioned in the past, readers of this newspaper are predominantly of the second and third generations of their families born in America. We should have rachmones, compassion, for the new generation of immigrants, and for those looking to gain a foothold in this country that our forebears saw as the Goldene Medine, the land of gold.
Jewish poet Emma Lazarus expressed the best hope of America in “The New Colossus,” as she put words on the silent lips of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
— Mordecai Specktor
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