Monday, February 17, 2020

Smoothing the Way for Immigrants

History doesn't make a very sturdy platform from which to project the future. When we imagine the future, we think in terms of what we already know, not the unthinkable. We weigh today's events against our shared understanding of history, looking for common reference points between then and now. But what if the unfolding story of tomorrow is different than anything we could imagine?

I was recently reminded of that possibility when a friend recommended a book on the Jewish immigrant experience. The book History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund: The Americanization of the Jewish Immigrant was written in 1935 by Samuel Joseph, founder of the sociology department at City College in NY. It explores the efforts of the Baron de Hirsch Fund to settle the influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Baron de Hirsch was an extremely wealthy man who was committed to helping the Russian Jewish immigrants. His fund created agricultural communities and trade and agriculture schools focused on turning Russian Jews into American citizens. Much of their work was experimental with no certain outcomes.

I felt a bit as if I had stepped into a time capsule, rocketing back to different points in time on my journey. Published in 1935, the author observed pre-WWII Germany as the German Jews  were desperately trying to get out. He drew parallels to the 1880s. 

The situation at the end of the Eighties (1880s), strange and sad to say, is being rehearsed in almost identical form in our own day. We need only substitute the German-Jewish refugees of today for the Russian Jews. 

He returns to the period of history with which he was familiar. 

‘Whither to flee?’ agitated the Pale.* The question was debated in hamlets and villages, on street corners, in synagogues and wherever men congregated. As in Nazi Germany today there was a confusion of counsel. Should the Jews migrate in masse or demand their rights as citizens and human beings?

Little did he conceive of what was to unfold as he tried to force it into the framework he had known to date. It reminds me that we sometimes don’t have the capacity  to conceive of the scope of destruction that is possible. 

As he compares the flight of the Russian Jews of the 1880s to that of the German Jews in the 1930s, he adds what is meant to be a comforting note, the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany had become a matter of formal international concern, an improvement over the 1880s. The League of Nations had appointed a High Commissioner for Refugees. We know of course that came to naught as countries slammed their doors to refugees.

Back in the time capsule I zoom back to the 1890s. A time in which Joseph reports that local immigration officials violated the law and interpreted it aggressively to exclude Jews.  Those actions had the support of some key government officials. Immigrants often had to argue their case before immigration boards and sometimes appeal to Washington.  Both the courts and challenges from the fund alleviated some of the opposition.  In 1910/1911, following a large influx of Jewish immigrants, executive actions were implemented under a federal statute which made the actions of immigration officials non-reviewable in court. New rulings were then introduced to require immigrants to have $25 in their possession or be considered a likely public charge and refused entrance. Offers of aid to immigrants from anyone who was not legally required to provide support  were rejected. The fund took these issues to court and got a clarification that judicial review was permitted when there were fundamental errors committed against the alien. The $25 requirement and banning of outside aid were also overturned. 

In response, the efforts of the immigration officials just became more devious.  A new claim was made that if a man’s wife and children remained overseas, that was also his residence, even if he had been in the US for some time. When restrictive quotas were introduced, they did not allow for a man bringing his family to join him. Even a loophole that exempted naturalized citizens from this restriction was in danger of being closed. By the 1930s raids were occurring where aliens were arrested wholesale and deported without an investigation. Only one sixth of aliens were able to make bond or hire counsel.

The fund made arguments that sound surprisingly familiar today, arguing that criminality among immigrants living in the US was less than that of natural-born citizens.

So,what else did the fund do for immigrants?  Aid was given to immigrants at the port. Lost baggage and addresses of family members were located.  Gradually these functions were transitioned to other organizations with support from the fund.  Jobs were found, shelter provided and trades were taught. An agent was assigned to assist immigrants who were threatened with deportation. Other organizations also stepped up, often with funding from the Hirsch fund. The National Council of Jewish Women copied down names of women from the manifest between the ages of 12-25.  Correspondents in 275 American cities monitored their progress in getting situated and finding work. HIAS,  the Clara de Hirsch Home for Immigrant Girls and the Hebrew Free Loan Society all worked to settle immigrants into American society with the de Hirsch money often smoothing the way.

I felt gratified that my ancestors had support from the Jewish community when they stepped on American soil, that they weren't alone in this strange new world. I hope that remains the case for today's immigrants who are often facing not too dissimilar obstacles.

* the Pale was the area of Russia in which Jews were forced to live.