Opinion

Chances Are, the Reason You're Alive to Read This, Is Immigration

When I was small, I was taught that we are commanded to remember. Now, we seem to have learned to forget. Even here. Even in this country where the Holocaust is a constant shadow, the fear of refugees can take malignant turns. Turns which Americans must do everything they can to avoid.

Children carry signs as migrants and refugees demonstrate in Athens on January 21, 2017, in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington, one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP

Early this morning, something on cable news made me sick to my stomach.

It wasn't an atrocity, a massacre, or a child's body washed ashore. It was just words. 

The words came from Republican National Committee official Shawn Steel, defending President Trump's expected executive orders banning refugees and curbing visas for Syrians and certain other Muslims.

Steel, seemed to suggest that the ban was, in one sense or other, for the prospective refugees' own good:

The immigrants, he said, were disproportionately "young discontented Moslem males. You bring them into any society, you're going to have a certain percentage of them - higher than other groups - that are not going to be working in the society, acculturating themselves, or frankly, they won't be very happy."

CNN anchor Isha Sasay: "But Shawn, you're talking as if there is no vetting process in place right now. There is, and it's a stringent one, and it goes for multiple months, in [some] cases over a year."

Steel: "You're completely wrong. It's actually run by the United Nations. It's Sunni religious Moslems that are actually controlling the vetting. There's no non-Moslems involved in that."

These days - though it feels like months since Trump took office on Friday -  it's all too easy to see words as weapons of psychological warfare, or as verbal smoke bombs or baited traps. Anything to slap us away from what's actually going on.

But there are still words - even on Twitter - which are simply the truth.

"I am alive today because borders were open to Jews before 1924," wrote Rabbi Jill Jacobs of Tru'ah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in an implied warning Late Tuesday of the potential consequences of a Trump refugee ban.

"Many in my extended family died after borders closed."

Chances are good that the reason you are alive to read these words, is immigration. Chances are, that whether you are reading them in North America or South Africa, Israel or Australia, the story of your family is, at one stage or another, a story of immigrants. 

And if members of your family were trapped in the horror of the Holocaust, chances are that immigration policy - banning refugees, canceling visas, and demanding that local officials hand over "illegals" -  played a key role as well. 

The practical aim of that Immigration Act of 1924, whose overall purpose was "to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity," was to curb the entry of Eastern Europeans, primarily Jews, as well as Southern Europeans, Africans, Asians and Arabs. 

The members of my family split in three groups. Those were fortunate enough to move to the United States before 1924, or who were able to move to British-ruled pre-war Palestine, survived.

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Those who remained in our family's village, Antopol, in what is now Belarus, never reached the concentration camps. Some were burned alive when Jews were herded into a neighboring town's synagogue, which Nazi troops locked from the outside and set afire. Others were brought to execution pits and shot to death.

When I was small, I was taught that we are commanded to remember. Now we seem to have learned to forget. 

Even here. Even in this country where the Holocaust is a constant shadow, the fear of refugees can take malignant turns. Turns which Americans must do everything they can to avoid.

In 2009, the newly elected government, warning that African asylum seekers fleeing violent persecution were likely to commit crimes and "conquer neighborhoods," passed a preliminary form of the Prevention of Infiltration Bill, which would not only have imprisoned Sudanese and other refugees for long prison terms - it would have made doctors, nurses, and others providing aid to the refugees, themselves liable to prison terms of up to 20 years.

The policy has since been modified, its provisions made less stringent, but the government is still fighting to save remnants of its spirit in marathon appeals to an uncooperative High Court of Justice.

Currently, the Trump administration is said to be weighing financial punishment for "sanctuary cities" like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where law enforcement officials have vowed to refuse federal calls to hand over undocumented immigrants. 

Reports of the executive orders have fueled fears that Trump may eventually decide to make good on other promises he made during the campaign, among them mass expulsions and some form of a registry of Muslims in America.

Anti-immigration legislation, once it takes root, is difficult to dislodge. Even in America. The Immigration Act of 1924 remained essentially in place until 1952.

The Republican Party's Steel, noting that Americans have taken in 65 million immigrants in the last half century ("only 12 percent of them from Europe") is adamant that Trump's expected executive orders are just.

"We are rationally and logically bringing in non-whites to America, and this is something that's a very good, positive experience," he said.

"But to bring in people, young males particularly - look at the overwhelming numbers of the migrants that are coming. I wish that they were nice young families, children, mothers. No! They're  mostly young males. 

"Young males ought to be at home, protecting the women, protecting their mothers, protecting their daughters, protecting their wives. No, they're getting the heck out, coming to America, and many of them are not happy being here."

Americans may have learned to forget as well. Beginning with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

In place of Emma Lazarus' sonnet, we now have Shawn Steel of the Republican National Committee, singing the praises of Donald Trump's New Collossus:

"We're going to get ourselves a very beautiful, good-looking border. Part of it's going to be a wall, part of it's going to be fencing," he beamed.

"We're going to start looking like a country now."