Immigration, then and now

Criticism of a Trump aide for policies that would have excluded his family a century ago may make him a hypocrite, but doesn’t mean all of his arguments are wrong.

Stephen Miller speaks with supporters of Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
Stephen Miller speaks with supporters of Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There’s a lot of competition for the title of “least popular aide” to U.S. President Donald Trump. But Stephen Miller might be at the top of the list. Miller is the architect of Trump’s immigration stands, as well as a conservative policy wonk with the ear of the president. Yet in Trump’s West Wing freak show, he has also earned the reputation for being a strident ideologue.

Stephen Miller speaks with supporters of Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Miller’s advocacy for the ban on the entry of residents from several Muslim majority countries (the so-called “Muslim ban”), the family separation of illegal immigrants at the border and a cut in the number of legal refugees and immigrants allowed into the country have put a bull’s eye on his back. But the list of his critics extends beyond a hostile White House press corps. It also seems that he’s not very well-liked by members of his own family.

Evidence for that was on display this week in Politico magazine, which published a bitter diatribe calling Miller to task about his immigration views by his uncle, Dr. David Glosser, a prominent Philadelphia surgeon and professor. It’s clear that Glosser’s disdain for his nephew isn’t strictly a matter of partisan differences, as a snide reference to Miller’s high school career (when he reportedly was a gadfly conservative in a liberal school) illustrates.

But the substance of Glosser’s argument is what earned the piece wide play throughout the media.

Glosser wrote about Miller’s great-grandfather, Wolf-Leib Glosser, who immigrated to the United States from what is now Belarus in 1903. The tale is a familiar story of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who left behind poverty and anti-Semitic persecution to find opportunity and freedom in the New World. Wolf-Leib and his brother spoke no English—and had no money—when they arrived on American shores, but through work in sweatshops and via peddling, they earned enough to bring the rest of their family to the United States. Eventually, they built a chain of successful stores, ensuring their descendants would grow up in comfort and wealth.

Glosser’s point is that had the policies Miller advocates, including limiting immigration to those who can demonstrate that they would aid the U.S. economy and ending chain immigration based on family unification, been in place in 1903, Wolf-Leib would have been denied entry to the country. And if that had been the case, his descendants might well have perished in the half-century that followed when pogroms, wars, and ultimately, the Holocaust resulted in the murder of most of the Jewish population of the region.

Glosser is right to the extent that just about anyone who calls for limits on immigration is probably a hypocrite. Other than Native Americans and the descendants of slaves, all of us stem from people who arrived on these shores hoping for better lives.

But to claim, as Glosser seems to be doing, that this fact should end all arguments about immigration is a specious one. Hypocrisy is commonplace in politics and applies across the spectrum on a host of issues. Miller’s desire to close the gates is no more hypocritical than that of liberals like President Barack Obama, who sent his children to expensive private schools while denying the same opportunities to poor people who would have benefited from school-choice programs he opposed.

If you think Miller is wrong, then make that argument. Merely throwing family history in his face is just another way of telling those with whom you disagree to shut up.

But a bigger problem with Glosser’s argument is that it is disingenuous.

Until 1924, when Congress imposed limits and quotas, America had what we would now call open borders—only those who had contagious diseases were turned away. The country that welcomed an unlimited number of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a different place with different needs. To try to replicate that now on the same scale would be unimaginable, both in its impact on our economy and on our ability to absorb so many people. Nor would most Americans be content to let vast numbers of immigrants languish in grinding poverty or allow the sort of unsafe and poorly paid manufacturing jobs that gave previous generations their first step towards prosperity.

Equally disingenuous are the arguments that today’s refugees are the moral equivalent of Jews who fled Nazi Europe. As rough as the situation in Central America may be, the entire populations of those countries are not marked for death in that way. Those who claim that providing “sanctuary” for them is the same as hiding Anne Frank are making dishonest arguments that undermine the rule of law in our democracy, as well as dishonor the Holocaust. Enforcing laws passed by Congress and asking immigrants to obey the laws of our era—just as previous generations obeyed the U.S. laws of theirs—does not constitute oppression.

There are reasonable criticisms to be made of some of Miller’s positions and those of other “immigration hawks,” especially when some seem to be saying that they oppose allowing in more non-whites into the United States because it’s changing the character of the nation. Such arguments can be rightly termed as redolent of past waves of “Know Nothing” xenophobia that opposed the entry of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants.

But advocating a shift in immigration policy that would be based on merit or taking a hard line against illegal immigration is not inherently immoral. Nor is it racist to seek better vetting for those who come from terrorist hotbeds or to point out that it is not America’s responsibility to solve every refugee crisis in the world.

Americans should remember their backgrounds when pondering immigration and border security, but to claim that is the only consideration is just another way of delegitimizing and even demonizing legitimate points of view. Though dialogue between Miller and Glosser seems to have broken down, if the rest of us are going to be able to discuss the issue, we should stick to what makes sense now, rather than demanding a return to the policies of 1903 that no one in their right mind really wants.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates