Purely Commentary: America’s 21st Century – Who Will Write Our Next Chapter?

The US, like any other nation, needs immigration laws, border security and immigration enforcement. As a democracy, it’s healthy to discuss these issues—even though the politics of so much of the immigration issue have blocked sensible immigration reform that has been embraced by a clear majority of Americans.

During this year’s High Holidays, I sat down with my family to watch a Ken Burns documentary USA and the Holocaust and I barely got through the first episode when I found myself drawn into the present day. The documentary highlights the welcoming nature of America as a place of refuge, which can be seen in the inspirational words of Jewish poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and the restrictive nature of early 20th century US immigration laws built on some of the same antisemitic foundations. led to the rise of Nazism.

Steve Tobocman
Steve Tobocman

As the grandchild of Eastern European Jews who fled anti-Semitism (and thankfully escaped a tragic death at the hands of the Nazis — a fate that awaited my grandparents’ siblings and parents who didn’t leave Europe), I was taught that America was the land of the free. and opportunity. Post-war history has underpinned that belief in many ways. In my lifetime, the US has welcomed more refugees than any other nation.

But Ken Burns’ documentary provides an honest and disturbing memory of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Far from being a beacon of religious tolerance and a welcoming land of freedom, the United States was provocative in the rise of populism that demonized various groups in southern and eastern Europe. Many Americans adopted the same antisemitic tropes that fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler. Far from opening the gates of freedom, the United States rejected hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigration applications, which left many European Jews, like the family of Anne Frank, suffering tragic, unspeakable horrors.

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What struck me during my observation was that, while few popular leaders today openly utter anti-Semitic words, the ways in which the immigration laws of the United States have been adapted to those seeking keeping out asylums in early 20th century America and those being promoted by the opposition. -immigration politicians today. I mean the same policies. Suddenly during the first episode of Ken Burns’ documentary, the narrator discusses the use of the “public fee” and how it was used to deny Jewish applications for immigration.

What is the Public Charge?

For many viewers, the reference to the “public charge” would not register as an important issue in the American story of American Jewry or in today’s immigration policy. But to me, the executive director of Global Detroit, a regional economic development organization that focuses on immigrant inclusion as a strategy to strengthen Southeast Michigan’s economy, the issue of the “public cost” is important and reactivating immigration is very dangerous. barriers that, according to Ken Burns’ documentary, kept hundreds of thousands of Jews from escaping tragedy in Europe.

United States immigration laws have long included provisions that allow immigration officials the ability to deny entry to immigrants if the government determines that the person is likely to be a “public charge” or dependent on benefits government.

This provision dates from 1882, but saw increased use during the 1920s and, with anti-immigrant attitudes on the rise during the Great Depression and anti-Semitism leading up to World War II, even more common usage in the critical years of European and German Jewry. tried to flee from the Nazis. It fell into disuse after World War II until President Donald Trump sought to greatly expand its meaning and use to close America’s borders.

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In 2018, President Trump and his Acting Director of US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ken Cucinelli proposed a new federal rule on the “public charge” that would, in effect, create a wealth test for entry to the United States. — a wealth test that I’m fairly certain my own grandfather would have failed. Mr. Cucinelli went so far as to redefine the Statue of Liberty’s inscription of “Give me your weary, your poor, your huddled masses seeking to breathe free,” arguing that it only applies to those who could “stand on their own two feet. ” But, as my own family history suggests, wealth is hardly the metric of what immigrant families need to make it in America and become meaningful contributors to American society.

Trump’s proposal to expand the “public charge” became a federal rule in August 2019, authorizing immigration officials to withhold green cards from legal applicants who used any number of government assistance programs they themselves (or their US citizen children) to which they are legally entitled — including food assistance, health care and housing vouchers or were simply working class.

It was an obvious attempt to re-establish the policies used to keep Jewish refugees out of America in the 1920s and 1930s and apply it to those seeking freedom and asylum today.

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A bit of Good News

So far, the good news is that, in September of this year, the Biden Administration published a new rule on the “public charge” that restores the historic approach taken by the US and declares that immigration officials will not punish individuals for making an access choice. the health benefits and other supplemental government assistance legally available to their families, especially US-born children.

But the debate over America’s immigration policy is just as contentious today as it was during President Trump’s term in office. Arrested Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made headlines recently at migrants who flew to Martha’s Vineyard without prior notice to local officials; He wanted to “protect Florida” from immigrants coming in without approved immigration visas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott with DeSantis to fund the transport of migrants to northern cities, sending a bus to drop off migrants outside the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, DC

The US, like any other nation, needs immigration laws, border security and immigration enforcement. As a democracy, it’s healthy to discuss these issues—even though the politics of so much of the immigration issue have blocked sensible immigration reform that has been embraced by a clear majority of Americans.

But as they listen to the immigration debates of the 2020s, American Jews should pay close attention to America’s history a century ago. Documentary by Ken Burns USA and the Holocaust provides a basic guide from which to begin that journey.

Steve Tobocman is a former Michigan state representative and executive director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit focused on immigrant-inclusive economic development strategies.


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