I am not sure the legal status or process that my grandparents Morris and Anna Tobocman went through when emigrating from Poland to Detroit or that of my mother’s grandfather Harry Baron (from whom I got my middle name, Hershel) when he emigrated from Russia to Bowling Green, Ohio.
I do know they were eager to pursue the American dream, a concept of freedom and prosperity that motivated millions across Europe to make the journey. And I know that the parents and siblings of my grandmother Anna Tobocman who didn’t make the journey were killed a decade later in Nazi death camps.
I view the upcoming presidential election as a critical one to my identity as an American Jew. Donald Trump has put the issues of immigration, refugees and religion as the central cornerstone of his campaign; and many observers have credited his commitment to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, inexplicably to be paid for by Mexico, as the campaign pledge that separated his candidacy from that of other Republican presidential hopefuls.
As an American Jew, I believe the United States plays a unique role in world history as a place of refuge and opportunity. If my Jewish ancestors, who faced tremendous persecution in Europe, had not immigrated here, it is almost certain my parents would not have been born — as their parents would have almost assuredly been killed by the Nazis.
Not only has America provided a home free of religious persecution, but it has provided tremendous economic opportunity, and my family has prospered like so many other Jewish families.
Over the past 20 years, I have had the privilege of working with Mexican, Central American, Bangladeshi (who are Muslims) and Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees (both Christians and Muslims) who have sought to pursue the American dream for reasons similar to that of my own family. I have worked with thousands of hard-working immigrant families — both documented and undocumented — who want nothing more than to provide for their families and to live in freedom and peace.
A Stark Contrast
To label the tens of thousands of Mexican families who are my neighbors as “rapists” and “criminals,” as Donald Trump has done, is not just factually in error (researchers have chronicled lower crime rates among immigrants than their U.S.-born contemporaries), but it is offensive. It is bigoted. And I consider it to be un-American.
Trump’s ideas and proposals about immigration, refugees and Muslims are bad policy. How much will the wall cost? How will Trump get Mexico to pay for it? How will he do more than Obama (who has deported 2.5 million undocumented folks — more than all other 20th-century presidents combined) to crack down on immigration? What will happen to the millions of undocumented families with no criminal history (the vast majority of the 11 million undocumented)?
Let’s start with Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico border. He has no specifics on how much it would cost, how he would gain access to the private property that thousands of private citizens own along the border (would he use eminent domain?) and how he would pay for it (the Mexican president says he firmly told Trump that Mexico would not pay).
Trump originally estimated it would cost $8 billion and that he would threaten Mexico by stopping the personal remittances of Mexicans living in the U.S. if they did not pay, but has since said it might cost $10-12 billion. Others place the cost at $25-50 billion or more, but no one knows because no serious public policy experts who are concerned about immigration think the wall is the answer.
In fact, Mexicans make up slightly less than half of the 11 million undocumented, 40 percent of whom originally entered the U.S. legally (and have overstayed their visas). So this very expensive wall doesn’t even address the majority of the undocumented.
Moreover, Trump’s fundamental argument — that undocumented immigrants are at the source of the nation’s crime and economic woes — is false. While there are legitimate discussions about issues of fairness and justice relating to those who reside in the U.S. without legal documentation, the facts strongly suggest that they have a negligible contribution to the nation’s crime rates (and numerous studies suggest they have much lower crime rates) and a significantly positive impact on the nation’s economy.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton has campaigned on introducing within her first 100 days in office comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship along the lines of Senate Bill 744, which passed the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan basis in 2013. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, comprehensive immigration reform along these lines would shave $570 billion off the national debt (through increased tax revenue contributions) and increase our national output by 0.5 percent or $90 billion through increased earnings and productivity.
The Refugee Question
As an American Jew who believes this nation plays a unique role as a place of refuge, as a supporter of Israel and as global leader for a more humane world, it is the refugee question that most concerns me about Trump. Trump has said that the U.S. cannot take in refugee victims of terror, ISIS and other forms of persecution — including Christians being terrorized for their religious beliefs — “until we know what’s going on.” Yet he provides no substantive policy prescription.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has resettled more than 800,000 refugees, and only a handful have been arrested on terrorism-related charges — and there have been zero domestic terrorist attacks committed by refugees.
The U.S. security clearance process for refugees is far more rigorous than Europe’s. In fact, refugees to the U.S. are the most thoroughly vetted visitors to our country, requiring four federal agencies and usually more than two years after the United Nations has done its own vetting.
Trump seems impervious to the evidence. He prefers to play on our fears rather than focus on how to stop radical Islamic terrorism, which requires us to ally ourselves with Middle Eastern forces who want to combat ISIS. He appears to have zero compassion for terrorism’s victims.
Clinton has called for the U.S. to do its part to help address the world’s largest refugee crisis since WWII. Recently, the U.S. accepted its 10,000th Syrian refugee (less than half of what Canada has accepted and one-100th of the number of refugees accepted by Germany).
I can only think about the tens of thousands of Jews who sought refuge in the U.S. in the 1930s but were turned away. Opponents of accepting Jewish refugees at that time condemned Jews as communists and provided other anti-Semitic rhetoric to stir national opinion against accepting Jews who sought to flee Nazi persecution. Trump is doing the same to Muslims in America.
Talk to your Chaldean neighbors and you will learn that the turmoil in Iraq is their own genocide. Talk to Syrian refugees or Metro Detroiters with family members stranded in Aleppo and you will learn that they are fleeing for their lives — not some political ideology.
My grandparents and great-grandparents came to America for freedom and opportunity. And they found that. My grandmother Anna Tobocman was a patriotic American who voted in every election and valued the rights of citizenship bestowed upon her while her parents and siblings lost their lives in concentration camps.
When I think of the America that can best honor those ideals, I don’t see them in the positions that Trump has taken around immigration and refugees.
When you vote this November, I hope you will join me in voting for the America that welcomed your family, not for the one that turned away Anne Frank’s.
Steven Tobocman is a former State Representative (D-Detroit) and former House Majority Floor Leader. He is the managing partner at New Solutions Group LLC.