Illegal immigration, history

The topic of immigration remains a prevalent one in the United States, but oftentimes discussions about it are often restricted only to present-day immigration and relations with Mexico. In her talk at Colby on April 8, Assistant Professor of History at Kingsborough Community College Libby Garland challenged that trend. The history of illegal immigration, she explained, is often-overlooked, but it is a personal and prevalent aspect of immigration history. The Jewish Studies Department sponsored the event, and it was part of this year’s Migrations Humanities theme.

An immigration specialist and author of the recent book After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, Garland sought to tell the story of Jewish immigration in the early to mid 20th century. She discussed many of the immigration issues concerning American Jews in the early 1900s, most notably the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, both of which established race-based immigration limitations on certain “undesirable” races, including Jews. She put this legislature in the larger context of Anti-Semitic and nationalist sentiments prevalent at the time.

She began by giving a bit of personal background surrounding illegal immigration in the early 1900s, telling the story of the way in which she came to study it. She discovered the topic  almost by accident while doing research about immigration in general and noticing specific stories of illegal immigrants in the documents she was researching. She also gave historical background, starting with the aforementioned immigration acts.

The Quota Acts were effective in reducing immigration significantly, but not in eliminating it entirely. Until the 1920s, the largest enforcement initiative had been the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the measures needed to completely halt illegal immigration did not exist. The difficulty of identifying races, she argued, was further accentuated in classifying Jews because of Judaism’s dual role as a race and a religion. She told the story of a man who was turned away because his German sounded “too Yiddish,” but contrasted his particular instance to the frequency that Jews posed as members of other races.

“So, why don’t we know more about this?” Garland asked towards the end of her talk. One of the reasons was that, while it was by no means easy, it was much less difficult for Jews to be considered white than most other races. Much of the history concerning them in this light, therefore, moved into the mainstream white as a result. Additionally, Garland spoke of a concerted effort by Jews not to be associated with other illegal immigrants in the years toward the end of the time period her book covers.

At the end of her talk, Garland tied the stories of these past immigrants to modern perceptions of illegal immigration. She concluded with three points that she wanted the audience to keep as takeaways: “Modern immigrants have much in common with these past ones….The border system in the US has quite a history, and our modern laws are derived from them….This system has been dysfunctional and contested from its inception.”

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