Look at ‘Jewish illegal immigration’ brings historical perspective to contemporary debate

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

With immigration such a hot political topic recently, Libby Garland’s book “After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965,” (The University of Chicago Press, $45, 288 pages), is both controversial and timely. Garland, assistant professor of history at Kingsborough College, the City University of New York, begins her book by discussing the first two federal acts (1921 and 1924), which limited the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and banned almost all immigration from Asia. While the author claims that these two acts were never specifically intended to restrict Jews from entering the United States, most of the Jews entering our country during that period, came from the proscribed region. Although these two acts were repealed in 1965 by the Hart-Cellar Act, the immigration issue continued to present a problem for our nation.

Through thorough and painstaking research, employing a multitude of both primary and secondary sources and requiring more than 70 pages of footnotes, Garland concludes that the first two restrictive acts, in addition to those imposed by state legislatures, resulted in a new class of criminal—the illegal alien. The Jewish aliens were abetted by Jewish agencies that helped them circumvent and usually totally evade the laws. Garland’s research also shows how the country attempted to solve the problem of illegal aliens by pushing for both immigration restrictions from newly created nations such as Poland, as well as the registration of aliens who had already arrived from Europe. 

Although this is a book about illegal Jewish immigration to the United States, it is by no means a book for Jewish historians only. Garland has astutely drawn a parallel to today’s political battles over such issues as documentation and identity cards and between security and personal freedom. Although the author has emphasized that American Jews were at the forefront of the battle against alien registration throughout the era of the 1930s and 1940s, she correctly notes that there has been a concern about the illegal immigration of others, particularly Mexicans. She concluded in her epilogue, “who and what get defined as dangerous and worthy of control, for what reasons and by what means, has been profoundly subject to historical change.

The book is not the smoothest read because the author tends to use long, convoluted sentences. Nevertheless, it is a relevant book about a most complex political problem and the author has certainly made her point.

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