One of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) greatest legacies was his Lautenberg Amendment, which conferred refugee status to hundreds of thousands of Jews, Baptists, and other persecuted religious minorities in the Soviet Union in 1990.
On a UJA mission to Israel in 2011, the senator mentioned to me that he received complaints about crime among Jews from the former Soviet Union living in New Jersey. I answered that he could silence these complaints by uttering two words: Sergey Brin. He and his family were among the over one-and-a-half million Jews who left the Soviet Union in the 1990s, most moving to Israel, but with hundreds of thousands also entering our shores.
One of the American-Jewish community’s greatest chapters was the advocacy and fund-raising to make this “Operation Exodus” possible. Brin is the co-founder of Google, which employs hundreds of thousands and is one of the most valuable companies in the world. His story is a shining example of successful immigration to the U.S.
A generation earlier, another Jewish refugee fleeing the aborted Hungarian Revolution of 1956 became the mainstay of Intel for decades. The Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY), named for Andy Grove, is a testament to his philanthropy and innovative talents. In fact, CCNY, my alma mater, has 10 Nobel laureates, virtually all immigrants or children of immigrants.
And yet, immigration from Eastern European countries was all but curtailed by Congress passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which created a national origins quota and limited the number of immigrants to 2 percent of each nationality living in the U.S. based on 1890 census data.
As noted in Daniel Okrent’s “The Guarded Gate” (2019, Scribner), restrictive immigration efforts were led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Madison Grant. Grant, who was among the leadership of the New York Zoological Park (which became the Bronx Zoo), was a eugenicist whose theories on threats to the white race influenced nativist members of Congress. According to Grant’s philosophy, non-“Nordics” need not apply for entry into the U.S.
Addressing this topic in 1958, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy authored “A Nation of Immigrants,” a book which touted the importance of immigration based on the talents of those seeking to immigrate to the U.S., rather than discriminating against those from Southeastern Europe: primarily Jews, Italians, and Greeks. Kennedy valued “the interaction of disparate cultures and, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here.” Two years after his assassination, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, establishing a new immigration policy based on reunification of families and attracting talent benefitting the nation.
Having overcome four decades of disastrous immigration policies that closed the gates for tens of thousands of Jews and other groups during World War II, the latest U.S. government data is shocking. In a recent New York Times article written by University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, last year immigration to the U.S. fell 70 percent to 200,000 people, the lowest level in more than a decade. Compounding this is a cap of 18,000 refugees for next year, down from the current level of 30,000.
Aside from meeting humanitarian concerns in an increasingly fractured world, we need the talents of immigrants with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) backgrounds to strengthen our competitiveness as we are mired in mediocrity in STEM tests when compared to students from Western Europe, Japan, and Korea. According to Goolsbee, we are also below population replacement rates, putting greater pressure on funding Social Security and Medicare as the proportion of workers taxed for these programs are declining even as the number of retirees are increasing.
In addition to the anti-Semitism and ethnic hatred exhibited by the 1924 act, quotas hurt the work of domestic scientists. A study by NYU economists cited by Goolsbee revealed that from the 1920s through the 1950s, patents for U.S. scientists who worked in fields shared by Eastern European colleagues fell by almost 60 percent compared to those in other fields. As a result, fewer Americans became scientists and the country experienced less innovation. The economists concluded that the essence of creating knowledge is the interchange of different perspectives that only diversity can harness.
One of the NYU economists, Petra Moser, stated that the most important lesson gleaned from the quotas was: “Don’t keep people out based on ethnicity” or we’ll continue to live isolated within our ethnic bubbles.
And, of course, for us Jews, these quotas consigned tens of thousands to annihilation who might otherwise have gained entry to the U.S.
We need to advocate for greater numbers of immigrants based on first-degree reunifications and the talents they bring, not restrict entrance based on religion or country of origin. And considering the wave of Kurdish refugees fomented by the Turks and our irresponsible abandonment of them, shouldn’t we increase by many multiples the number of Kurds we accept?
Our civil discourse has been dominated by protecting our borders —essential for any nation — and the treatment of illegal immigrants which, in too many cases, has been shameful. We need to give equal, if not greater, attention to substantially increasing the numbers of legal immigrants and refugees.
Only then will we give justice to Kennedy’s plea.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.