Lost in Translation

Jewish Light Editorial

President Donald Trump hasn’t exactly shown a lot of respect toward women over the years. Now, with his new immigration proposal, he’s dissing Lady Liberty herself.

A large part of American greatness has been its generous spirit toward foreigners celebrated by the words of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty. A nation that welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” sends the world a timeless message of hope and inclusion that should continue to be valued today.

The controversial and draconian immigration bill sponsored by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and DavidPerdue of Georgia, and embraced last week by Trump, sends an altogether different, exclusionary message. It would replace the present immigration system basedon family members in the UnitedStates to one based on “merit” orso-called “economic value” to the country.

The bill, if approved by Congress, would cut in half the number of green cards issued each year to immigrants seeking permanent legal residence — to just over 500,000  from more than 1 million. 


The president praised the effort, repeating his frequent theme that foreigners are out to steal jobs that should be held by Americans. The argument is a blatant and unjustified appeal to fear among those who put him in office, with no definitive figures to back it up.

The ostensibly family-friendly administration wants to eliminate the path for brothers, sisters and adult children of American citizens to take advantage of a long-established avenue to citizenship. Spouses and young children would still be eligible to apply.

To help determine which applicants would win the coveted status, the bill sets out a point system that gauges job skills, education levels and fluency in English.

That last qualification is particularly objectionable, especially to immigrant Jewish families and others whose residence in the United States may have been blocked because their ancestors did not speak English well enough. 

If that preference had been in place in America from the 1880s through the mid-1920s, nearly all of the 2.5 million European Jews admittedduring that period would have been turned away. Most of that wave of immigrants spoke their native Yiddish and learned English only after they settled here.

If they had been barred because their English-language skills were not strong, the American Jewish community as we know it today would not exist.

Similarly, when Jews from the former Soviet Union finally gained the right to immigrate to America, many would have been barred under the proposed rules because they were not fluent in English.

Thankfully, the stringent restrictions to immigration policy included in the Cotton-Perdue bill have gained little support in Congress or among the public.

The Washington Post reports that in a Gallup poll taken in June, “35 percent said immigration should be decreased while a similar 38 percent said it should remain at current levels and 24 percent said it should be increased.”

And a recent Pew Research Center survey underscores the notion of access, saying that “68 percent say America’s openness to foreigners is a defining characteristic of the nation, while just 29 percent say ‘if America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.’ ”

Those figures hardly indicate strong backing for what the president wants. But that disregard would fit into other recent actions from the White House, such as his ban on transgender individuals in the military. Rather than play to his base, he needs to show more respect for traditional American values and broad public opinion.

Doing so would reflect an understanding of the conclusions in another recent Washington Post article, citing what is termed the “Trump boomerang effect” — an encouraging trend.

The article points out that in “Washington and around the world, in some surprising ways, things are happening — but they are precisely the opposite of what Trump wanted and predicted when he was sworn in.” 

In other words, whatever Trump wants, he doesn’t get.

That view oversimplifies things, of course. But in the case of immigration, anyone who favors humane, sensible policy should hope it holds. 

You don’t have to be fluent in English to understand this simple statement: To make America great again, the golden door that leads to citizenship must remain open.