Foreword by Abraham H. Foxman
The reissuing of “A Nation of Immigrants” on its 50th anniversary is not only commemorative but has great relevance for us today. The history of this monograph is deeply intertwined with the story of America’s struggle for a fair and compassionate immigration policy.
When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reached out to the junior senator from Massachusetts in 1957 to highlight the contribution of immigrants, the country was locked in a debate about the direction its policy should take.
Then, as now, nativism, bigotry and fear of competition from foreign labor were dulling the collective American memory of its own immigrant history and its ideals.
Then, as now, hate groups were beating the drums of anti-foreigner slogans and tried to sway the public and elected officials toward a restrictive immigration policy.
The Jewish community had its own unique immigrant experience – too frequently caught between America’s welcoming tradition and home-grown nativist movements and anti-Semites.
Many Jews like myself, fortunate to arrive on these shores, were treated with suspicion. A 1939 Roper poll found that only 39% of respondents felt American Jews should be treated like all other people – 10% even believed Jews should be deported.
Groups like the Ku Klux Klan exploited anti-foreigner fears and bigotry. They attracted record membership in the 1920s and 1930s as fascism and anti-Semitism rose in Europe and Jews sought a haven from Nazi persecution. The door of immigration -- open to Jews fleeing pogroms in the late 1800s -- was largely closed by policies like the National Origins Act that set a cap on immigration and established a discriminatory national-racial quota. That disappointed thousands who sought refuge in America and cost the lives of many more who perished in the Holocaust.
Their sense of despair is etched in our memory in the chilling image of the 900 Jews aboard the SS St. Louis floating off the Florida coast in May 1939, the lights of Miami plainly visible on the horizon, who pleaded for refuge in the United States. It was a haunting moment in our history when America’s fear led policymakers to betray one of our country’s most cherished traditions – providing safe haven for the persecuted.
In 1963, when President Kennedy prepared his plea to Congress for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy and the discriminatory national origin quota system, he decided to update and reissue this book to reemphasize the central ideal of welcoming immigrants to America. That new edition was in the works when he was assassinated. The monograph was then posthumously published in 1964, with an introduction by his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Attorney General Kennedy called the book "a weapon of enlightenment" to be used "to eliminate the discrimination and cruelty of our immigration laws."
The abandonment of the passengers of the SS St. Louis is not ancient history. Today, the same fear and canards that hardened the hearts of America’s people and leadership are being used to foment fear of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.
President Kennedy’s vision and call to conscience in 1957 is even more stirring and relevant today. The debate over immigration reform dominating the headlines, editorials and conversations in the classroom, the board room and the dinner table across America is following an all too familiar pattern. Our nation finds itself at a crossroad which provides an important opportunity for national reflection and self examination – if we choose to seize that opportunity instead of giving in to those who go down the dangerous path of targeting immigrants and assailing the principle of diversity and pluralism on which the country is founded.
Many Americans are moved by the activism of immigrants marching proudly under the banner “we are America,” and welcome their desire to join our communities and to contribute to this country. They reflect the diversity that makes America unique. But others are swayed by fear and the hate-mongering that is becoming mainstreamed in the media and on the Internet and sometimes spawning violence in the street.
ADL has issued a series of reports exposing extremist forces in our society today using the immigration debate to advance their agenda of hate, bigotry, and white supremacy.
While racial superiority is no longer the parlance of our time, today hate groups rail against non-white immigration and urge Americans, to “fight back” against the perceived ”invasion” of the “white” United States by Hispanics from Mexico.
We know from our own experience that when a society begins to demonize a group as less deserving of rights, less worthy, less human, less equal, then discrimination, exploitation and worse, can follow.
The communities impacted by immigration policy change from generation to generation. The families seeking to be united come from different countries and continents, the believers seeking religious asylum practice different faiths, persecution victims are targeted by different regimes. But they all come here united by a desire to enjoy the liberties and opportunities our nation was founded upon.
Unlike in the past, immigration today is not a matter of Jewish self interest per se. But it is a matter of principle that cuts to the core of our values as Jews and as Americans dedicating to preserving America’s founding mission as a haven for the persecuted.
As a survivor of the Holocaust, I came to America with my parents from a displaced persons camp in Austria. I know what it means to be an immigrant, and as a Jew I know what it means to be the target of hatred. Our tradition compels us to “remember that we were once strangers in a strange land.” This has motivated Jews throughout the ages to be at the forefront of reaching out to other vulnerable communities and to advocate beyond the particular interests of our own community. That principle is what unifies good people in America, regardless of national origin.
Today we engage this debate, not just as a Jewish organization or a civil rights organization with a record of nearly a century of advocacy for fair and humane immigration policy. The Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish community are mindful of the threat posed by 21st century terrorism and the duty of government to enforce borders and protect its citizens. This has put in sharp focus the need to reform our immigration law with an appropriate balance of fairness, compassion, and security. That is why we have championed comprehensive immigration reform efforts that marry enhanced border security, and the humane treatment of immigrants and their families.
We are heartened that as the third edition of this book is issued, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and The President have called on America to embrace diversity are urging congress and the people to support needed reform our broken immigration system.
We are proud to join with another distinguished Senator Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, a stalwart in urging Congress not to abandon these principles. He has been a voice of reason and passion – a center of gravity in a tumultuous and polarizing debate that cuts to the core of the fundamental ideals and future of this nation.
On the 50th anniversary of a “Nation of Immigrants,” we rededicate ourselves to the principle that is as urgent and timely today as when written. The tenor and outcome of our national debate over immigration reform and the fate of undocumented persons in the U.S. will speak volumes about our national character and ideals. We hope good people will use this opportunity to move beyond merely the goal of “tolerance” and desire for an orderly immigration system. We hope Americans and their lawmakers will heed the call of President Bush who has spoken eloquently about the welcoming spirit that has defined America and urged Americans to embrace and not to fear diversity.
Heeding the plea of the Kennedy brothers, Americans should come together to proudly embrace our immigrant past and our immigrant future: "our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow. Neither race nor creed nor place of birth should affect their chances."
Abraham H. Foxman