American Jews: Maybe your grandparents were ‘illegals’ too (audio)

In my family, they say that Abuelo Abraham Saenz, wearing his WWI U.S. Army uniform, “smuggled” one of his sisters (photo, above) into the country via the Port of Philadelphia, wrapping the girl up in a fur coat so she looked like a rich lady.

The scheme was “dress to impress” so the MIGRA wouldn’t think to question her bonafides. She was illiterate, the story goes, and that wasn’t kosher for poor Jewish would-be immigrants from Ukraine in the early 1900s. The rich bitch trick worked, my great aunt got through immigration and everyone lived happily ever after.

Our family story, it turns out, isn’t unique. There were poor Jews who sneaked across the Mexican border near El Paso, and families smuggled in the cargo holds of ships packed with illegal Cuban rum during Prohibition.

Tablet Magazine explains:

Jewish-American family lore is full of stories about how a great uncle or grandmother passed through Ellis Island when they came to the United States from Riga or Salonika or any other number of places in Europe. What we don’t typically hear about are Jews who entered the United States illegally, sneaking over the border in El Paso or being smuggled in along with a shipment of booze during Prohibition. The term “illegal alien” isn’t one usually uttered by Jews in conjunction with Jews.

Yet in her new book, After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States 1921-1965, historian Libby Garland demonstrates that in the early part of the 1900s, when immigration quotas were imposed to keep out undesirable populations, many Jews defied the law in search of safe haven and opportunity. Some succeeded in their efforts. Others were arrested and deported.

Garland joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to talk about why quota laws were imposed, what Jewish communal leaders in the U.S. did to respond to these restrictions, and how the battle over immigration from 100 years ago presages the battle over immigration today.