Given the situation at the American-Mexican border, I decided to reflect upon my own personal immigration story. At the outset, I want to compliment the president for sticking to his guns and doing more than any president of the United States to correct a very complex and minefield-laden issue. It is also important to point out over and over again that President Trump made it patently obvious from the get-go that building a wall at the border with Mexico was one of his priorities. He was elected with this signature campaign promise. This was abundantly clear to everyone, and America gave him a mandate to do so.
Although the circumstances and background are vastly different, my family was fortunate to be allowed into this great country. My grandparents called it the “goldene medinah”(the golden country). They indeed believed the streets were literally paved with gold. Truth be told it wasn’t easy for Jews to come into America. There was a quota on the number of Jews allowed each year, and this lasted from 1924 throughout World War II. If more Jews had been allowed into America, fewer Jews would have been killed in the Nazi gas chambers. I have presented the numbers below. The quota prevented passenger boats like the MS St. Louis in 1939 from dropping off its human cargo. The majority of its passengers died in the gas chambers as a result.
In 1924 Congress passed a law to set immigration quotas by country and limit total immigration to 164,000 per year. This was enacted to limit mostly Jewish, Asian, and African immigrants. Between 1900-1915, an average of 900,000 people immigrated to America per year. Between 1915-1924 only 450,000 people per year were let in. After the 1924 law, only 145,000 were allowed in, and of this total only 1.8% were from Asia, Africa, or Southern or Eastern Europe. The 1924 law set a limit of 25,957 immigrants allowed from Germany. In 1933 only 12,400 visas were issued. There were 82,000 Jews on a waiting list. The waiting list grew each year. By 1940 over 300,000 Jews remained on the waiting list. Most were killed by the Nazis.
My paternal grandfather was lucky because he came to the United States in 1910. From 1900 to 1915 the U.S. government placed no overall limits on the number of immigrants allowed in. He came to America because after fighting for the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, risking his life and nearly getting killed, he came back to his village of Zhitomir, in Ukraine, and almost immediately was attacked by the Cossacks in a pogrom. He had had enough of Russia. He immediately made plans to leave to America. He came with two brothers. One settled in Memphis, one in St. Louis, and one in Philadelphia.
My maternal grandfather came to America in 1917 after being wounded in World War I. Many Jews were drafted into the Austrian army. All were sent to the front lines. Many were killed as a result. Many Jews cut off their trigger finger to avoid being drafted. My grandfather was fortunate and made it to America.
Many Jews were not able to enter America during this time. I just ran into a man whose grandfather left Poland in 1916, and because he could not enter America he went to the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, because of the situation, he assimilated. His grandson is not Jewish. This story has repeated itself over and over. Jews ended up in Cuba and Ecuador as a result.
Because World War I caused such upheaval, my great-grandfather emigrated to Palestine. Unfortunately, the war brought great famine everywhere. He died in 1917 of starvation in Jerusalem.
The immigration picture has improved significantly since World War II ended. In 2015, the number of persons obtaining lawful permanent resident status was 1,051,031. The 10 most notable countries of origin, which might surprise some of the pundits, include: (1) Mexico: 158,619 (2) China People’s Republic: 74,558 (3) India: 64,116 (4) Philippines: 56,478 (5) Dominican Republic: 50,610 (6) Vietnam: 30,832 (7) El Salvador: 19,487 (8) Pakistan: 18,057 (9) Jamaica: 17,642; Colombia: 17,376; South Korea: 17,138; Haiti: 16,967; and (10) Bangladesh: 13,570. Somalia had 6,796 people obtain permanent resident status.
Immigration is good for America. However, like previous generations it must be done legally with due process. The million or so immigrants per year who have come to America and were granted lawful permanent resident status have done it the right way. Why should any nation tolerate anything less?
Joseph M. Frager is a physician and lifelong activist.