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Immigrants, Then and Now

Lawrence Bush
December 1, 2004

Lessons of a 350-Year Heritage

by Linda Gritz
A country is torn apart by war. A boatload of refugees flees to another land, sparking a debate about whether the refugees should be allowed to stay. Sound familiar? Well, this particular event happened 350 years ago, and the “boat people” were Jews.
The first group of Jews who arrived in the American colonies in September, 1654 were illegal aliens, refugees from Recife, a prosperous center for sugar production in Brazil. Recife had been under the control of the Dutch after they wrested the town from Portuguese rule in 1630.
Jews had come to the New World even earlier. Sailing with Christopher Columbus on his first voyage were at least five conversos (Jews or descendants of Jews who had converted to Catholicism and were under constant scrutiny by the Spanish Inquisition). There has even been speculation that Columbus was a converso, but the evidence is only circumstantial. In any case, Columbus linked in his journal the two most momentous events of 1492: “So after having expelled the Jews [and the Muslims] from your dominions, your High-nesses . . . ordered me to proceed with a sufficient armament to . . . India, and for that purpose granted me great favors.”
One of the conversos on board, Luis de Torres, a linguist and translator, decided not to return to the world of the Spanish Inquisition. He left Columbus’ expedition and stayed in what is now Cuba. Ten years later, a Portuguese converso, Fernando de Loronha, explored Brazil and built its first forts. Subsequent explorations of the New World by Spain and Portugal brought other Jews to South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico, but the Inquisition followed them.
The Dutch conquest of Recife in 1630 brought relief to the Jews there, and Jews from Holland swelled the settlement’s Jewish population to 1,000, or half of Recife’s population. The Portuguese tried to retake Recife starting in 1645. They succeeded nine years later and gave the remaining five or six hundred Jews three months to convert or leave. In May, 1654, sixteen ships carrying the Jews of Recife set sail for Holland. Fifteen returned safely, but one, carrying twenty-three Jews, was blown off course and attacked by Spanish pirates, who robbed and sank the vessel.
A French ship rescued the passengers and transported them to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, site of present-day Manhattan. Several of the passengers were held hostage until the Jews could raise the money to pay what they owed the French captain for their safe transport.
Sketch of Peter StuyvesantHaving survived these multiple misfortunes, this group of four men, six women, and thirteen children decided to stay in New Amsterdam, where they expected to find in New Amsterdam the same tolerant treatment Jews had under Dutch rule in Holland and Recife. But the governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, who had previously allowed only one or two isolated Jews to live in the colony, was alarmed at the prospect of larger numbers settling there. He protested to the Dutch West India Company, which had a charter to administer American Dutch colonies on behalf of the Dutch government: “We have . . . deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart; praying . . . that the deceitful race . . . be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”
However, the Dutch West India Company sent instructions to allow the Jews to stay, “especially because of the considerable loss sustained by this nation . . . in the taking of Brazil, as also because of the large amount of capital which they [Jews] still have invested in the shares of this company.” Peter Stuyvesant protested: “To give liberty to the Jews will be very detrimental. . . . Giving them liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and the Papists.” The Jews then proceeded to fight for the rights enjoyed by the other Dutch inhabitants of the colony: the right to perform military service rather than pay a mandatory exemption tax, the right to sell goods, the right to own property, and the right to become a burgher, which essentially provided citizenship. Asser Levy van Swellem, one of the “boat people” from Brazil fleeing the Inquisition, became the first Jewish citizen in North America.
Peter Stuyvesant’s worst fears proved correct. The granting of rights to Jews opened the door to Lutherans, Catholics, and others to settle in New Amsterdam and practice their beliefs. The first Jews in North America thus inaugurated a long tradition of Jews fighting for the rights of immigrants in America.

Photo of Arrivals at Ellis IslandThere were several waves of Jewish immigration to America, including Sephardic Jews in the 18th century and German Jews in the 19th. A tidal wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration began in the 1880s with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The assassination was blamed on the Jews, spawning a series of pogroms, which in turn motivated millions of Jews to flee the Russian empire. Over two million Jews came to America during the next fifty years — including my family.
Like the first group of Jews in North America, my mother’s mother was an illegal alien. You wouldn’t have guessed that from looking at her, this mild-mannered, law-abiding, working-class immigrant from Lodz, Poland. Maybe anyone, no matter how they look, can become an illegal alien under certain circumstances.
Back in Poland, Grandma Paulie wanted to come to America, but America of the 1920s had strict immigration quotas. In a blatant effort to keep America populated with Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples, the quota system was much more generous to western European countries than to eastern European countries. Canada was more welcoming, so Grandma Paulie came across the ocean to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But she still wanted to be in di goldene medine, the golden land of the United States. It’s not clear how she got in, but she did. She lived with the fear of being discovered and deported. Then, sometime in the early 1940s, the U.S. declared an amnesty and she became a legal alien and eventually a U.S. citizen. Her entire family back in Poland was wiped out in World War II. She was the only one left, safe in the U.S. What if she had been deported?
My father’s father tried to leave Poland in 1925. A family member had succeeded in getting proper immigration papers, came to America, and sent the papers back to the family in Grodzisk. Another family member went to America on these same papers, and then another. Finally, it was Grandpa Noyekh’s turn.
Here the story varies, depending on who tells it. One cousin says that Grandpa Noyekh got to Ellis Island, panicked, and flushed the papers down the toilet. Another says Grandpa Noyekh could never tell a lie and couldn’t go through with using false papers. Grandpa Noyekh himself would simply shrug and say, “Zey hobn mikh oysgefinen!” (“They found me out!”) In any case, he was sent back to Poland, married my grandmother, and had three children, including my father. Luckily, they all emigrated, legally, this time, in 1937, just two years before the Nazis invaded Poland.

What about today’s immigrants to the U.S.? Few are having the luck of my father’s family, especially since September 11th, 2001. Immigrants of Middle Eastern origin, in particular, have faced discrimination, detention and deportation. Immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Justice arrested over 1,200 aliens (the exact numbers have not been disclosed) on immigration charges. In June, 2003, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice released a report reviewing the treatment of these aliens. The report cited evidence of physical and verbal abuse of the detainees and found that they were confined at times under unduly harsh and restrictive conditions, with severely limited family contact, delayed access to phones and obstructed rights to legal representation.
The report also noted that the FBI did not distinguish between immigrants encountered by chance and those with a possible connection to terrorist activity. The Office of the Inspector General was particularly concerned with the long incarcerations and delays in clearing and releasing detainees. For example:

A Muslim man . . . [was] arrested after an acquaintance wrote a letter to law enforcement officers stating that the man had made anti-American statements. The statements, as reported in the letter, were very general and did not involve threats of violence or suggest any direct connection to terrorism. Nonetheless, the lead . . . resulted in the man’s arrest for overstaying his visa. . . . By mid-November 2001, the Field Office concluded that the detainee was of no interest. However . . . [he] was not cleared by FBI Headquarters until late February, 2002 due to an administrative oversight.
“Another alien was arrested, detained on immigration charges, and treated as a September 11th detainee because a person called the FBI to report that the . . . grocery store in which the alien worked ‘is operated by numerous Middle Eastern men. . . . Too many people to run a small store.’ ”

Hundreds of these detainees are still in prison, three years after September 11th, 2001. To date, not a single one has been charged with links to terrorism.
In addition to this rapid post-September 11th roundup, the FBI has conducted some 80-100,000 “voluntary” interviews with people of Muslim, Arab, or South Asian origin, under a ‘Special Registration’ program that is based simply on their countries of origin. These interviews, while yielding no significant leads on terrorist activity, have resulted in 13-14,000 immigrants being placed in deportation proceedings. According to the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF), “the people in the U.S. who have been most affected” by the Special Registration are “non-Arab Muslims, in particular Pakistanis and Bangladeshis,” many of whom arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s and “are therefore far more vulnerable to policies based on immigration status” than American Arabs, 80 percent of whom are U.S. citizens.
“Policies and practices that fail to properly distinguish between terrorists and legitimate foreign travelers,” write Margaret D. Stock and Benjamin Johnson of the AILF, “are ineffective security tools that waste limited resources, damage the U.S. economy, alienate those groups whose cooperation the U.S. government needs to prevent terrorism, and foster a false sense of security by promoting the illusion that we are reducing the threat of terrorism.” The events of September 11th, they conclude, mark “a failure of intelligence, not immigration law.” [For more about the ineffectiveness of religious and ethnic profiling in anti-terrorist work, see Udi Ofer’s cover article in last month’s Jewish CurrentsEd.] Stock and Johnson recommend ten immigration reform measures that “can enhance our security without jeopardizing the important role immigration plays in the war against terrorism and in our economy.”
Immigrants who have neither participated in “suspicious” activities nor emigrated from target countries have also been caught up in the post-September 11thth crackdown. Obain Attouoman, for example, was a very popular high school math teacher in Boston until he disappeared in November. Students and colleagues went months without knowing what had happened to him. Attouoman had earlier applied for political asylum, fearing for his life if he returned to his war-torn native country, the Ivory Coast, due to his political activism on behalf of the Ivoirian People’s Front, a social-democratic party. The “crime” that led to his arrest in Boston was his misreading of the handwritten date of his immigration hearing. Having missed the hearing, he was ordered deported. His students initiated a letter-writing campaign and a protest to rally support from local officials. Attouoman was released from jail in March but awaits deportation, while his students have been deprived of a well-respected teacher and role model.
The post-September 11th chaos and hysteria have also undermined progress towards reform of U.S. immigration policies towards Mexicans, who comprised 42 percent of all new U.S. immigrants and one out of every five new workers joining the U.S. labor force during the 1990s, according to the AILF. Even the Bush Administration’s proposal last January to create renewable, three-year visas for undocumented Mexican workers — a “guest worker” program that was broadly criticized for giving far too much power and potential for abuse to employers — has not been translated into legislation. Instead, the Office of Homeland Security recently granted guards who patrol the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico the power to deport illegal aliens without even allowing them a hearing before an immigration judge. Advocates for immigrants’ rights are concerned that this expansion of power to border patrol guards will result in the unwarranted deportation of refugees seeking asylum, U.S. citizens who are missing paperwork, or other legitimate visitors. The Office of Homeland Security, however, claims this stepped-up policing action is necessary to protect the homeland from terrorists.

What should be done about today’s illegal immigrants? Are they really a threat to national security, as our latter-day Peter Stuyvesants claim? Is it acceptable to let immigrants work in sweatshops for little pay, silenced by the fear of being deported? Is it morally defensible to imprison them indefinitely, under the PATRIOT Act, without due process,? Are proposals for a “temporary labor program” a step in the right direction, or are they just a way to guarantee cheap labor for our factories and fields without providing any guarantees to the workers themselves?
The first group of Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam were not wanted either, as we were considered a “deceitful race.” Yet we stubbornly stayed and served as an inspiration for later generations of immigrants to struggle to make America di goldene medine, the golden land.

Linda Gritz is a molecular biologist by day and a Yiddish cultural activist by night. She is a founding member of A Besere Velt, the Boston Yiddish Community Chorus of the Workmen’s Circle.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.