The following is the text of a letter that I sent today to my congresspeople, Claire McCaskill, Roy Blunt, and Vicky Hartzler as a response to the ongoing and largely unnecessary crisis at the US-Mexico border. In addition to the history lesson, my basic point is that the current policy makes the world more dangerous place for Americans rather than a safer one.
Let me tell you a story about a man who fled violence and religious oppression. He had already made sure that his wife and children could escape, but the same forces that oppressed him did not want to let him go. It was at great risk that he escaped past one checkpoint that wanted to keep him in and past walls that did not want to allow him through before finally joining his family in the United States.
Once in this country he opened a store, only to see it fail when the economy turned. So he tried again. And again. Eventually he succeeded in a venture selling furniture. His daughter became a teacher and his son-in-law a soldier who became a social worker. His grandsons became a teacher and a rabbi, and his great-grandchildren are educators, programmers, doctors, and engineers. Three of them have earned doctorates, including one right here in the state of Missouri.
I am, of course, talking about my great-grandfather.
This is a story I have been thinking about a lot recently because of the crisis that has developing along the southern border of the United States and the circumstances in which my great-grandfather arrived in this country. Had he been fleeing violence and oppression in the Soviet Union just a few years later, he would have been denied entry into the United States because the Johnson-Reed Act had severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe starting in 1924. David A. Reed, the senator who gave his name to the bill, defended its implementation in an article in the New York Times on April 27 of that year, describing how the the barred immigrants from “the war-stricken countries of Europe…whose inexperience in popular forms of government would lead them to demand too much of their Government, and to rely too heavily upon it, and too little upon their own initiative.” He said that his bill would “mean a more homogenous nation” and “that the America of our grandchildren will be a vastly better place to live in.”
Senator Reed was wrong and the immigration bill was modified in 1952, but it is also the case that his rhetoric was not an outlier. Behind this immigration bill lay a tradition of concern over immigrants of one form or another that targeted, among others, Catholics, Asian-Americans, and Germans. It labelled them traitors, loyal to the pope or the emperor, called them dangerous anarchists or unskilled economic deadweight. For their religion, for their language, or for the apparent color of their skin, a belief laid bare by none other than Benjamin Franklin who asked in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751): “why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys [his word for white non-Anglo-Saxons], of increasing the lovely White and Red?”
Ben Franklin, like Senator Reed, was a flawed human being capable of being wrong.
Immigration is a fundamental part of the American experience, from our music to our popular culture to our food. If you have had a piece of pizza, the mozzarella cheese on it was considered an immigrant food a century ago. The same is true of the bagel and the taco.
America takes the best that immigrants have to offer and returns them the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness within a land of freedom and equality. America takes the best and returns in equal measure, giving those who arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back opportunities to fulfill their potential.
Senator Reed was correct when he said in 1924 that my great-grandfather was fleeing war-torn Europe in the same way that migrants across the world today are fleeing countries ripped apart by violence. Building walls is not going to change that fact and the United States cannot afford to isolate itself, economically or otherwise. Doing so, in fact, is only going to cause these wounds to fester.
Our freedom is our strength. Our diversity is our strength. Without one we don’t have the other. Isolating the United States only serves to create a more dangerous future.
I urge you to stand against the mistreatment of immigrants seeking asylum and against policies that stoke fear at the expense of actions that address the root causes of this global humanitarian crisis and prove to the world that American values are not just empty rhetoric.