I was going to write about something else this week, but the combination of the initial plans for the Mexico wall and especially the ban on immigration from selected Moslem countries wiped away my other concerns for the moment. I am sure my readers have found plenty of articles to read on both of these topics. But I don’t want to focus on the legality of these measures, or the strategic or diplomatic implications, or the fact that each measure is bad for our country in its own way. All of that is true, but when it comes to immigration, it’s personal for me. To explain why, I want to tell you a story. It may not seem relevant at first, but I will get to that.
I am the grandson of Jewish immigrants to the United States. The only story I know at all well is that of my mother’s father. He came to the United States through Ellis Island as an 11 year old boy in 1911. He made the journey alone, sustained by the dream of being reunited with his older brothers who had preceded him here. He particularly was eager to be reunited with his favorite brother Harry. He and his family were fleeing the pogroms in eastern Europe, so I seriously doubt that his papers were in order, making it unlikely that he could have made it through the screening procedures that were already in place under President Obama. But, in 1911, he was allowed into the country. He grew up to be a gentle and loving man. We never discussed it, but I think he was always grateful to the country that gave him and his family refuge in those dark days. I never heard that he had any interest in relocating to Israel after 1948. He had made a good life here by then. He had learned a trade, in the days when bookbinding was done painstakingly by hand. Years later, when he had been long retired, he rebound a set of Encyclopedia Britanicas that my parents had had for many years. Ironically, the set was from 1911, the year my grandfather came to America.
Now suppose my grandfather had been trying to get to America as someone like Donald Trump took office. He would have been taken off the boat in Europe, and told he was no longer allowed to make the trip. If his brother Harry found out somehow what had happened and came to Europe to try to find him, he might not have been able to return to the United States. All of this would have been justified by a president who believed that notorious anti-Semitic propaganda, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Rothschild banking conspiracy were real, and this theoretical president would have had a Steve Bannon figure at his side encouraging this belief. (For the sake of historical accuracy, the Protocols did not have much influence in the United States until they were promoted by Henry Ford in the 1920s, but you get the idea.)
You can tell me if you want to that the Jews and the Moslems in the modern Middle East are enemies, but these are human beings seeking refuge, just like my grandfather. Some of them have actually helped our country fight against terrorism, and it is now no longer safe for them to live in their country of origin as a result. They all have their stories, just like my grandfather, and their hopes and dreams are here. The Mexicans who seek to come here have received less attention this week, but they too are seeking refuge from poverty and crime, not bringing it with them. Donald Trump has obviously never needed to seek refuge from anyone, and he is emotionally incapable of imagining what that would be like. They say all politics is personal, and this certainly is for me.
Woody Guthrie understood that immigration policy affects real people with real lives, so his song Deportee is perfect here: