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The US Capitol

A Threshold We Have Crossed Before

Over at The Bulwark+ (worth every dime of your subscription), Tim Miller went back to Jeb Bush’s 2015 campaign announcement where he said, “I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead the greatest time ever to be alive in this world.”

“It occurred to me sometime in the last few months that I’m not sure I believe that anymore,” Miller wrote. “There [is] just this sense that something has shifted, that we have crossed a threshold and maybe our best days are actually behind us.”

Well, Tim, I take your sense of foreboding and raise it with a snapshot of all-awful-things immigration since 2017.

Thousands of children separated from their parents; Twice as many immigrant detainee deaths this fiscal year than last; A shutdown of our asylum system; Thousands of unaccompanied children expelled from the country, with many held secretly in hotel rooms; Refugee resettlement falls to historic lows; Allegations of hysterectomies performed on detained immigrant women without their knowledge; Increased deportation of undocumented immigrants who pose no public safety threat; Massive reduction of legal immigration pathways; The El Paso massacre; Elimination of temporary protected status for 400,000 immigrants, many of whom have been in the US 20 years; Approximately 300,000 legal immigrants unable to naturalize in time to vote; and, The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on immigrants.

We crossed that threshold years, not months, ago.

But it is also a threshold we have crossed before.

Between 1905 and 1914, according to Jia Lynn Yang’s “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide,” nearly 10 million immigrants arrived at our shores. After a pause for World War I, the number picked up again.

But, this time, “More noticeable than their numbers, though, was the appearance of these ‘new immigrants,’ as some called them disdainfully. … The more recent arrivals spoke Italian, Yiddish, Polish and Russian.”

After a period of dormancy, the Ku Klux Klan was once again on the rise, “This time with a virulent anti-immigrant core and millions of members gathering not in the shadows but in broad daylight.”

In response to the changing demographics of immigration, according to Yang, “On May 26, 1924, [President Calvin] Coolidge, who had promised in his first annual message to Congress that ‘America must be kept American,’ signed the Johnson-Reed Act into law,” ending Asian immigration and dramatically reducing immigration from southern Europe.

Meanwhile, a political prisoner in Germany lamented the ease by which one could become a German citizen. Looking across the Atlantic, he wrote, “’The American Union categorically refuses the immigration of physically unhealthy elements and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.’”

That political prisoner was Adolf Hitler.

Is this what awaits us on the other side of the threshold this time?

Honestly, I just don’t know. There are too many unknowns.

Yet, what does give me a sense of hope is the story of Emanuel Celler, a son of Jewish immigrants from Germany.

In 1921, Celler was 35 years old and in the first year of a congressional career representing Brooklyn that spanned nearly 50 years. Over time, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, he fought for, and passed, without personal fanfare, a raft of transformative legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 among them.

Furthermore, for nearly 50 years, Celler fought against some of the darkest impulses of our nation to make the case for immigrants and immigration to the U.S. After decades of minor victories and major defeats, in 1965, the Hart-Celler Immigration Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, whose formative immigration experiences came on the U.S.-Mexico border and helping Jewish refugees seek protection on our shores.

So, going back to Tim’s piece, I believe our best days are ahead of us.

Now, those days may not come for years, but they will come.

Why?

Because Maria Ramos, who came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, now represents Storm Lake, Iowa, as a city councilor; organizations like New American Leaders are training hundreds of naturalized citizens to run for office; over 10,000 evangelical women have added their names to a letter to Ivanka Trump urging the administration to protect immigrant children; and the daughter of two immigrants who came to the U.S. to attend college is a candidate for vice-president.

And, like my abbreviated list of awful things above, there are so many more great things to share. The fact is that there are people high profile and not, along with organizations big and small, working to keep us on the right side of history.

For my part, I am grateful to be a small part of an organization, and a movement, to keep us on that right side.

Onward.

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