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America’s First Illegal Immigrants

Robert Slayton
November 21, 2015

by Robert A. Slayton

anti-Immigrant_cartoon_1896RABBI MARTIN ZIELONKA of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas, had to deal with a growing problem, one he expected would worsen: Four Jewish immigrants appeared on his doorstep, coming from Eastern Europe to Mexico (by way of Spain or the Netherlands) and then entering the United States in total violation of the law. Nine more landsman were interned in an El Paso jail; meanwhile, there was a shipload of Jews in Mexico, waiting to make the clandestine journey, usually using smugglers to help get over the border.

Why were these Jews entering in violation of U.S. law, when millions of others had come over without such transgressions? The game changer was an adjustment to this country’s immigration laws, explicitly designed to keep out Southern and Eastern European immigrants: Jews, Italians, Russians, Poles, Greeks, and more. With these statutes, Jewish became some of this nation’s first illegal aliens.

During the late 19th century, many Americans were becoming concerned about newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe. The influx of Jews, especially, was cited as a prime example of why the new mass migration was a problem for America. This issue was put on hold in 1914 when World War I started and cut off the flow of people migrating from Europe. But the fear arose that after the war there would be a flood of immigrants, not from Latin America or Asia, as today, but from the places that had been sending immigrants here before the war. In one sense they were right: With the end of the Great War, 1919 brought the second highest number of immigrants of that entire wave of immigration to our shores; only in 1906 were the figures higher.

Adding to the postwar concern was the 1920 Census, which showed that for the first time in American history, 51 percent of Americans lived in cities. Forget the fact that the Census defined cities as any place with 2,500 or more residents (I’ve lived in apartment buildings with more people); the old ways of the small town and the farm were disappearing.

The result was the immigration bills of 1921 and 1924. The 1921 measure capped the number of immigrants allowed in at roughly 350,000 per year. It also established quotas for individual countries, derived from their percentage of the U.S. population. This was a rigged system, as those percentages included how many Americans were descended from that group’s original settlers. Some nations therefore received unusually large quotas, despite minimal immigration in the few years before the bill’s enactment. If ten people had arrived in 1750 from Great Britain, the number of that original cluster’s descendants would be huge by the 20th century. The base year, moreover, was set back a decade to 1910 to exclude from the figures all those who had recently arrived from war-torn Europe after the sea lanes were safe again in 1918. It was not immigrants in general who were blocked, but certain nationalities and religions. Fiorello LaGuardia branded the 1924 act “the creation of a narrow mind. Nurtured by a hating heart.”

THESE RESTRICTIONS were not sufficient to Congress. In 1924, they revised them with another immigration act, even tougher. This law cut the overall yearly figure in half, to 165,000, and moved the base year to 1890, thus totally excluding from quota calculations not only recent arrivals but the entire generation of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The quotas for some nations dropped substantially under this revision, went way up for others. Within the diminished total figure, legal immigration from Russia was limited to 2,248 a year, 5,982 from Poland, 3,845 from Italy. Germany, on the other hand, had a figure of 51,227, while Great Britain and Ireland combined were allowed 62,574 slots. In short, these bills were specifically designed to keep out not immigrants in general, but immigrants from specific places, places considered undesirable.

A subset of the 1924 law was the Oriental Exclusion Act, specifically aimed at Japanese immigration. Two years earlier, in Ozawa v. United States, the Supreme Court had ruled that Japanese were not eligible for U.S. citizenship because they were not “white.” (A 1906 American law had actually limited naturalization to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity,” and “persons of African descent.”) Jews were by no means unique in facing racist barriers to legal emigration to America. There is evidence, however, of legislators’ intent to restrict Jews especially. South Dakota’s Senator Thomas Sterling, for example, introduced a bill to create subquotas within the national designations. Under this proposed adjustment, no racial group would be allowed numbers greater than their proportion in their home country’s total population. Upon questioning, Senator Sterling agreed that this idea was specifically designed to limit the number of Jews from places like Russia and Poland. The proportion of Jews from these countries exceeded their proportion in their homeland’s population. While Sterling’s amendment never passed, it made the anti-Semitic aspect of the 1924 law very clear.

These immigration laws had a powerful impact on both Jewish immigration and on national policy. During year period prior to the 1921 law, 805,228 immigrants entered this country legally, 119,036 of whom were Jewish. In the year after the 1924 law, legal immigration to the United States dropped to 294,314, of whom only 10,292 were Jewish, a reduction of over 90 percent.

Then, as now, human beings sought to evade this country’s immigration restrictions — but in this era the primary effort came from the Jewish community. As Libby Garland, author of After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, puts it, after the new laws, “many European Jews were determined to emigrate to the United States, and rather than preventing them... from entering the country, the quota laws prompted some of them — with the aid of smugglers — to develop the most efficacious illegal means of doing so.”

This illegal migration was widespread and difficult to stem. Reports flowed in of Jews, Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, and Lebanese crossing this country’s southern and northern borders illegally. In June 1930, the Attorney General’s office in Washington received a letter from the assistant U.S. attorney in Miami describing the case of Chaim Josef Listopad, who tried to enter the country using false papers provided by the smuggler Samuel Weisstein and was apprehended. Charged with violation of the immigration laws, Listopad was released after an unknown party posted his $3,000 bail. After that, Lipostad disappeared, and as authorities noted, “the chances of his being apprehended are very remote.” They recommended dropping the case.

The top Bureau of Immigration official in El Paso claimed, “the number of European aliens in this district annually increases, and the prediction is made that the situation... will grow worse instead of better.” Typical was Naftoli Lederman of Poland, who tried to enter from Mexico using crude faked documents and was arrested, a victory for law enforcement. In Winsdor, Ontario, just over the border, a journalist described blocks of dingy hotels used by smugglers and referred to as “Alien Row.” Authorities in Bombay, New York in 1926 arrested Clara and Tola Zacharjasz, teenage Polish Jews. They had been illegally smuggled into this country from Canada, along with four Irish men and an Irish woman with three children. So common was this practice that immigration officials were instructed not just to work at the border, but to pursue illegal Jewish entrants throughout the interior, into boats, trains, or private automobiles suspected of transporting such individuals.

In this period, therefore, illegal immigration, especially from Latin America, was seen by many Americans as being a uniquely Jewish practice, which set off longstanding prejudices about a stateless people. In 1922, a Florida customs inspector reported, “Last week a man very prominent in Hebrew circles informed this office that he had been approached by a fellow Hebrew... that he had arranged to bring in a large number of co-religionists into Tampa.” Three years later Feri Weiss, a federal investigator, described Jewish smuggler Dr. S. J. Weiss in explicitly ethnic terms: “Short, stout... decidedly Jewish type face.” Many Jews spent so much time in Latin American launching spots that they became fluent in local Spanish and could pass as natives.

Garland explains: “During the 1920s the Mexican border’s association with illegal immigration became fixed permanently both in the national imagination and in official practice.” It is worthwhile to mention that this connection centered around Jews, not Mexicans entering the United States in any capacity. At this time, few officials expressed any concern over immigration from south of the border, and considered this movement of people natural, inevitable, and lawful, fundamental to the regional economy. The “illegal aliens” at this time were Jews. The official in charge of enforcing the immigration laws in the El Paso district cited another immigrant group when he informed his superiors, “The problem of stopping the inflow of European aliens subject to the quota law has almost entirely displaced the Chinese smuggling with which the border service had to contend.” Later, however, this would change: The 1921 and 1924 laws spurred an interest in racial exclusion, so for the first time Mexican immigration became a subject for debate and action. The U.S. Border Patrol, founded in 1924 explicitly to block European immigrants, slowly became more involved with Mexicans during the 1920s.

Given the illegal nature of this migration, we will never have definitive numbers of how many Jews broke the law to enter this country after 1924; evidence suggests a figure in the tens of thousands. Far more important, however, is this effort’s impact on the present-day United States. Looking at the laws that regulate today’s immigration, it is clear that they cannot be seen as new or as responsive to current conditions. Rather, they emerged from an era and an environment in which Jews were leading players.

Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University, and the author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.