The U.S., like any other nation, needs immigration laws, border security and immigration enforcement. As a democracy, it is healthy to debate these issues — although the politicization of so much of the immigration issue has stymied common sense immigration reform that is embraced by a clear majority of Americans.

During this year’s High Holidays, I sat with my family to watch Ken Burns’ documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust and I barely got through with the first episode when I found myself pulled into the parallels to the modern day. The documentary highlights both America’s welcoming nature as a place of refuge, evident in the inspiring words of Jewish poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and the restrictive nature of early 20th-century U.S. immigration laws built on some of the same antisemitic foundations that led to the rise of Nazism.

Steve Tobocman
Steve Tobocman

As the grandchild of Eastern European Jews who fled antisemitism (and gratefully escaped tragic death at the hands of the Nazis — a fate that awaited my grandparents’ siblings and parents who did not leave Europe), I was taught that America was the land of freedom and opportunity. Postwar history has, in many ways, undergirded that belief. In my lifetime, the U.S. has welcomed more refugees than any other nation.

But Ken Burns’ documentary provides an honest and disturbing recollection of American immigration in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Far from being the beacon of religious tolerance and welcoming land of freedom, the U.S. was gripped by rising populism that demonized various southern and eastern European groups. Many Americans embraced the same antisemitic tropes that fueled Adolf Hitler’s rise. Far from opening the gates of freedom, the U.S. rejected hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigration requests, leaving countless European Jews, like Anne Frank’s family, to suffer tragic, unspeakable terrors.

What stunned me during my viewing was, that while few popular leaders today openly express patently antisemitic words, the means by which U.S. immigration laws were tailored to keep out those seeking refuge in early 20th-century America are the same as those being promoted by anti-immigration politicians today. I mean the exact same policies. Suddenly during the first episode of the Ken Burns’ documentary, the narrator discusses the use of the “public charge” and how it was used to deny Jewish requests for immigration.

What is the Public Charge?

For many viewers, the reference to the “public charge” would not register as an important issue in America’s story about Jews in America or modern-day immigration policy. But for me, the executive director of Global Detroit, a regional economic development organization that focuses on the inclusion of immigrants as a strategy to strengthen Southeast Michigan’s economy, the “public charge” issue is important and one that very much threatens to reenact the immigration barriers that, according to the Ken Burns’ documentary, kept hundreds of thousands of Jews from escaping tragedy in Europe.

U.S. immigration laws have long included provisions allowing immigration officials the ability to deny entry to immigrants if the government deems that person likely to become a “public charge” or dependent on government benefits.

This provision originated in 1882, but saw growing use during the 1920s and, with intensifying anti-immigrant attitudes during the Great Depression and rising antisemitism leading up to the Second World War, even more common use in the critical years during which European and German Jews sought to flee the Nazis. It fell into disuse after the Second World War until President Donald Trump sought to greatly expand its meaning and utilization to close American borders.

In 2018, President Trump and his then-Acting Director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ken Cucinelli proposed a new federal rule on the “public charge” that, in effect, would have created a wealth test for entry to the United States — a wealth test that I am fairly certain my own grandfather would have failed. Mr. Cucinelli went so far as seeking to redefine the Statue of Liberty’s inscription of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” arguing that it only applies to those who could “stand on their own feet.” Yet, as my own family history suggests, possessing wealth is hardly the metric of what immigrant families need to make it in America and to 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 utilized any number of government aid programs to which they (or their U.S.-citizen children) were legally entitled — including food assistance, health care and housing vouchers or who were simply working-class.

It represented an explicit attempt to re-instate the very policies used to keep Jewish refugees of the 1920s and 1930s out of America and to apply it to those seeking freedom and refuge in the modern day.

A Little Bit of Good News

For now, the good news is that, in September of this year, the Biden Administration published a new rule on the “public charge” that restores the historical approach taken by the U.S. and confirms that immigration officials will not penalize individuals for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government assistance legally available to their families, especially U.S.-born children.

But the debate about American immigration policy is every bit as contentious today as it was during President Trump’s term of office. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently seized headlines by flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard without any advance notice to local officials; he was eager to “protect Florida” from migrants arriving without approved immigration visas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined DeSantis in funding the transport of migrants to northern cities, sending a bus to drop migrants off outside of Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington, D.C.

The U.S., like any other nation, needs immigration laws, border security and immigration enforcement. As a democracy, it is healthy to debate these issues — although the politicization of so much of the immigration issue has stymied common sense immigration reform that is embraced by a clear majority of Americans.

But in listening to the debates of immigration in the 2020s, American Jews should pay close attention to American history from a century ago. Ken Burns’ documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust provides a foundational guide from which to begin that journey.

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

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