Born in Salonica, then part of the Ottoman Empire and home to the largest Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jewish community in the world, one of my great-uncles fled the city at the end of World War I. Escaping mandatory military conscription, he stowed away to Istanbul and then smuggled himself to Cuba and then to Mexico. He finally crossed the US border at Laredo, Texas in 1925, but, due to a new immigration restriction law enacted in 1924, he did so under an assumed name and claiming to be Mexican in terms of his nationality, place of birth, and race — claims rendered more convincing thanks to his fluency in the Spanish-sounding Ladino.
It was a good thing my great-uncle knew how to game an unjust, racist American immigration system established precisely to keep people like him out. His two sisters and many in the extended family who remained in Salonica, unable to secure visas to the United States due to the quotas, all perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
My great-uncle’s story is representative of the illegal nature of much of Jewish immigration to the United States. In fact, during the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were the group most commonly associated with illegal immigration in the American imagination. Scholars estimate that tens of thousands of Jews entered the country illegally during this period. The only reason this story has been forgotten is because Jews have since positioned themselves in the eyes of the government as white. White, civilized, European people don’t come to this country illegally, right? It is time to disabuse ourselves of the myths and recognize that immigration restriction not only historically targeted Jews, among many others deemed “riffraff” and “undesirables,” but also that, in response, Jews, like many others, both entered the country via illicit means and fought against the very restrictionist measures that were keeping them out.
With its immigration restrictions, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, Congress made it impossible for immigrants from Asia and parts of the Middle East to enter the country and set strict quotas for those coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. Ironically, due to the desire for cheap labor for agribusiness in the southwest, no restrictions were placed on Mexicans at the time. Entering as a “Hebrew” (Jews were identified as a separate “race” by the US government until the 1940s) — and one from Greece or Turkey at that — would have been virtually impossible at the time. Hence, my great-uncle’s decision to pose as a Mexican.
Such a decision risked exposure, imprisonment, deportation, and permanent exclusion from the country. But it also demonstrates that Sephardic Jews could draw upon their flexible cultural identities to their benefit to pass as (or be mistaken for) Mexicans, in the case of my great-uncle, or as (non-Jewish) Spaniards, Frenchmen, Italians, or Greeks, depending on the context. Sometimes, however, they were perceived to be less white — Turks, Arabs, or Muslims — to their detriment.
Representing mainstream American Jewry, Ashkenazi Jews often refused to accept “Oriental Jews” — usually considered those “exotic” and “uncivilized” Spanish-speaking Jews from the Muslim world — as their brethren and largely excluded them from participation in American Jewish institutions fearing that association with the newcomers would also jeopardize their own reputation. The ability of Sephardic Jews to build their own institutions and also to form bonds with other communities — especially Latinos in New York and Greeks in Seattle — provided much needed consolation. But associating with other communities or passing as representatives of a different race or nationality posed additional risks. During the Depression, rising nativism and the scapegoating of Mexicans — deemed racially inferior and “unclean, improvident, indolent,” as Mexican-American activist Ernesto Galarza characterized the prevailing sentiment in 1929 — resulted in the deportation of 500,000, half of whom were American-born children with US citizenship.
The first words pronounced by US Congress on the nature of citizenship, in 1790, indicated that only “white persons” were eligible to be naturalized and thereby implanted whiteness as the most important criterion for claiming status as a true American. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act now permitted only those eligible for citizenship to enter the country in the first place. Jews were among the groups most in search of refuge at that time and numbered among the principal targets of exclusion. We have a local Washington state politician to thank for that.
The chief architect and namesake of the Johnson-Reed Act, Republican congressman Albert Johnson, represented Washington’s third congressional district. As a promoter of eugenics and “race science,” he was fervently anti-Asian, having defended the white mobs who brutalized South Asian workers at lumber mills during the Bellingham riots in 1907. He also opposed interracial marriage and endorsed the belief that Jews were “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits.” With the enthusiastic backing of the Ku Klux Klan, Johnson pushed the act through Congress in order to halt the “stream of alien blood” he saw as threatening white America. Upon signing the act, President Calvin Coolidge remarked, “America must remain American.”
As the 1924 Immigration Act came into effect, Adolf Hitler took note. In his infamous manifesto “Mein Kampf,” he praises the United States not only for dispossessing Native Americans, enslaving blacks, and excluding Asians, but now, with the 1924 Immigration Act, finally rejecting Jews: “The racially pure and still unmixed German [Aryan] has risen to become master of the American continent, and he will remain the master, as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” America had become, in Hitler’s mind, the only country in the world actively bringing to fruition the “volkish [racial] conception of the state.”
The 1924 Immigration Act also invented the category of the “illegal alien” — the term was not in use before — and established the United States Border Patrol. But that did not prevent hopeful migrants from working the system, like my great-uncle and tens of thousands of other Jews. Those who applied for visas were often rejected — from Anne Frank’s family to the Barkey family of Rhodes to the more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis. By invoking national security concerns and the rhetoric of “America First,” and with the overwhelming 67 percent support of public opinion and fears of an imagined invasion of communists and German spies, the US State Department forced the St. Louis to return to Europe in 1939; many perished in Nazi camps. After their American visa applications were rejected for eight consecutive years, and following seven years in a refugee camp in Tangier, Morocco, the Barkeys were only granted a visa to settle in Seattle in 1946 thanks to a family connection and the intervention of US congressman Hugh DeLacy. Their relatively good fortune was a major exception.
We may like to think that America has always been a “nation of immigrants,” but that expression only emerged during the Cold War — due to Jewish advocacy. With the encouragement of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, John F. Kennedy invoked the phrase for the title of his 1958 book to promote an image of America as culturally plural and open in contrast to the purportedly closed nature of Soviet society. Yet immigration exclusions based on race and nationality continued officially until 1965. Quotas never disappeared; rather, country-based and overall immigration caps remained in effect. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ removal of the reference to America as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement in 2018 symbolized a return to the more overt racism of an earlier era. The modified “Muslim Ban,” recently upheld by the US Supreme Court, signifies the recrudescence of racial and nationality quotas thinly veiled once again behind the rhetoric of national security.
In short, immigration restriction, like racism, is as American as apple pie.