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Immigration Law

The Consequences of 1924: For Greg Siskind and Many Others, It's Personal

"I get so tired of hearing from anti-immigrants that their relatives came over the legal way. The vast majority of people who say this have no idea what it took to come to the US, but up until 1924, virtually anyone who wanted to immigrate to America and could afford the ticket could come. That changed dramatically when the 1924 immigration law took effect and set strict quotas on who could enter the US. The law was squarely aimed at ending Jewish and Italian immigration. The arguments against admitting these groups were amazingly similar to what we hear about today’s Hispanic immigrants – they’re taking jobs from hardworking Americans, they won’t learn English, they are gangsters and driving up our crime rates, they carry diseases, etc.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen the callousness and downright cruelty of Americans who would send children back to countries where they will quite possibly die a grisly death. That’s not being melodramatic. Children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are more likely to be killed than children in Iraq. This small area of our planet has the highest murder rate in the world.

And the fate they face if they’re forcibly returned hits home personally for me. Today I learned of some shocking and sad news in my family history that is relevant to my perspective on this issue. For more than 70 years, my family had tried to find out what happened to my aunt and uncle from a small town in Poland – a young married couple  who disappeared during World War II and were never heard from again. Reading letters from my aunt, I know she wanted to come to America, but my aunt’s father – my great-great-grandfather – was very elderly and frail and could not be left alone. When he died, the doors to America had been slammed shut and it was impossible for the family to get visas to join my aunt’s three American brothers (one of whom was my great-grandfather). They were Jews stuck in Poland as the Nazis took over and were trapped because Americans decided they had had enough of large-scale immigration.

I learned this morning that the Nazis put my aunt and uncle and their children were put in a ghetto in their town. As the ghetto was being liquidated in 1941, most were shipped to concentration camps. But for the last 241 people, a 21-year old Nazi named Adolf Jeske instead simply murdered them all on the spot and buried them in mass grave in the town’s Jewish cemetery. The records were recently translated and the victims’ names posted online so we now know how their story ended. My aunt, uncle and their young children were all murdered along with their friends and neighbors.

This horrifying news will take some time to absorb given that I’ve heard about this mystery my whole life and we all secretly hoped that perhaps they survived and simply never were able to contact us. That happened to many even though we knew that the odds were low. Now we know that they never had a chance.

This pain is compounded knowing that they wanted to come to America and couldn’t largely because of Americans who turned their backs on these desperate people. This despite knowing they faced death (and, yes, Americans knew what was happening). Those who pressured politicians in the 1930s to keep the doors tightly closed were complicit in the murders as far as I’m concerned. And those who are saying today that it’s not our responsibility to take refugees – particularly the refugee children who have shown up at our border - are not so different. Hopefully, we will not commit the same sin again." - Greg Siskind, Aug. 7, 2014.