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I'm an Immigrant in America Thanks to Executive Action—Just Like Many of Your Ancestors Were

What conservatives don't understand about immigration "law"

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

This year will be the fourth year that my family will celebrate Thanksgiving without my grandfather, Yankel. It’s safe to say that Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday: Sitting at a table groaning under the otherworldly quantity of food, surrounded by his children and successful, Americanized grandchildren, he would raise toast after toast to this great country, his eyes moist with gratitude that America opened its rich embrace to him and his progeny. 

This year, after Obama’s executive immigration order, more than four million people might have the same impulse as my late grandfather. Even if the embrace proves temporary, it wouldn’t be a bad toast: Thanksgiving, after all, is the holiday of the immigrant, down to the very first Europeans who waded ashore centuries ago.

This year, in part because of my grandfather’s acutely felt absence and in part because the immigration debate rages on, I consider how my family got to these shores ourselves.

Back in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was just starting to let out its persecuted Jewish minority and the United States was starting to accept them, my father’s cousin’s cousin arrived in Maryland. Then, in 1988, when the Soviet Union coughed up its next batch of Jews, that cousin brought over her cousin, just as my parents were applying for refugee status back in Moscow. The cousin happened to be my father’s cousin, and once she got to Maryland, she became my family’s guarantor as well as the guarantor of some other relatives. We arrived, pale and dazzled, on April 28, 1990, and also settled in Maryland. Then my father wrote to our local congressman, Ben Cardin, and asked to be reunited with my father’s older sister, her husband, their two kids, and my father’s retired parents. Then my father pulled over his aunt and her son, Boris. By this point, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and all the dozen relatives my father’s cousin had been a guarantor for pulled over their own families, and they pulled in their own. By the middle of the 1990s, some 60 people who were of some blood or marital relationship to me lived within a 15-mile radius of the house my parents bought, with their cherry-red Toyota Corolla (bought new!) parked out front.

These days, when I hear the conservative mantra that people ought to come to America legally and follow the law and get in line, I wonder what, exactly, they’re talking about. My family—by that I mean, the dozens listed above—all came here legally, but we weren’t exactly part of the immigration system nor did we follow any law on the books. We were refugees, and refugees are usually counted outside the elaborate visa system that everyone agrees is broken. In fact, usually they’re let in by presidential diktat.

Here’s how we got in: In the last two decades of the Cold War, Jewish groups in America began to lobby actively for their brethren trapped inside a Soviet Union that would both abused them and refused to let them leave. Washington smelled a geopolitical opportunity and railed against Moscow’s callous treatment of the Jews, starting with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (1974), which applied trade sanctions against the Soviet Union for not letting its Jews leave. President Ronald Reagan pushed hard on the idea that everyone had a right to emigrate if they so chose, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed over half a million Soviets, many of them Jews, had emigrated to the U.S. (Another million or two went to Israel, and a few hundred thousand to Germany and Canada.)

In other words, my family got to move to America not because we followed some strict, unchanging law etched into a granite tablet somewhere, but because there was political will in Washington to push for us, and because that political will dovetailed perfectly with America’s foreign policy priorities at the time. That decision to allow hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews into the U.S. circumvented the legal immigration system by executive fiat, and it is a power that Congress gives to the president, to make exceptions to the refugee quotas and caps.

This is what a huge sidestepping it was: In 1989 alone, the U.S. took in 56,000 Soviet Jews. Today, the quota on refugees from Europe and Central Asia is just 2,200. The highest refugee quota today goes to East and South Asia, at 35,000. President Barack Obama has a discretionary buffer of some extra refugee visas, but there are only 3,000 of them.

Yes, we are a nation of immigrants, but we all got here differently. Even if we came here legally, the very definition of what that means has varied dramatically over the 200-plus years of America’s history. And quite often, it was presidential executive action that pushed it this way and that. 

Our immigration law has never been a constant. For the first century of the United States’ existence, immigration was totally unregulated. The only thing that was regulated was naturalization. According to the American Naturalization Act of 1790, only free white men could become American citizens. Otherwise, it was pretty much a free for all—unless you were Chinese. Chinese were totally barred from immigrating to the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

A young Russian Jewish immigrant at Ellis Island, New York.
Getty Images

It is often pointed out in liberal circles that many of the very whites who are crying out against Hispanic immigration were themselves descended from the Irish and German immigrants who faced widespread discrimination in the young United States. What isn’t noted, however, is the fact that they did not come here legally, at least not in the sense that they invoke when they rail against, say, the Hondurans. The ancestors of Bill O’Reilly and his ilk, setting sail in the 19th century from Ireland, England, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, et cetera, simply got on a ship and went to America. And in America they just got off. They did not go to American consulates in Dublin and Palermo to apply for H1B visas because H1B visas didn’t exist. Nor did any kind of visas, or passports for that matter. In fact, some of these countries—Italy, Germany, Poland—didn’t exist. When the United States did introduce restrictions for health and literacy, it was the responsibility of the shipping company to check their passengers’ papers—that is, it was the shipping company that had to transport a rejected immigrant back home, on the company’s dime.

Immigration began to be regulated in the late 19th century—starting with the exclusion of the Chinese—and ever since then, immigration policy has reflected America’s foreign policy far more than it did anything domestic. In part, that is because the end of the 19th century also brought the end of American’s image of itself as an island. In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist with a funny (Polish) name and America closed its doors to anarchists in 1903. That McKinley’s assassin was American-born hardly seemed to matter. (One notable exception to the foreign policy tie: America banned polygamists in the 1890s, a response to the Mormon crisis at home.)

Other times, America tried to shut its doors as new pathways of trade brought the natural migratory flows. For instance, at the same time that the United States banned Chinese immigration, it did not officially restrict immigration from Japan. “It’s not that there was much more enthusiasm on West Coast about Japanese immigrants than Chinese, but Japan was a much stronger country with strong diplomatic corps,” says Christopher Capozzola, who teaches the history of both American foreign policy and immigration at MIT. That is, both China and Japan were tantalizing markets for the booming American economy, but only Japan was strong enough to dictate its terms to the Americans. The result was the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement, under which the Americans would take in Japanese immigrants and the Japanese agreed to try to keep them from leaving in the first place.

The agreement didn’t last long and the Americans banned Japanese immigration in 1924. The ban was one of the things the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. came to the White House to complain about on the afternoon of December 7, 1941, just as Japanese bombs were beginning to fall on Pearl Harbor. As America fought Japan in World War II, China suddenly became an ally in that fight and the Chinese Exclusion Act became a major foreign policy embarrassment. The U.S. repealed it in 1943.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, by the way, didn’t stop Chinese migration to the U.S. Tens of thousands of Chinese came into the country illegally, through San Francisco, by claiming to be the foreign-born children of American-born Chinese and were therefore themselves American citizens. Immigration officials could do nothing to disprove them—all the records had burned up in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Thirty thousand of these so-called “paper sons” and their descendants were finally legalized by the executive action of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

Other events abroad drove American immigration policy. In the 1920s, the U.S. implemented a quota system that heavily favored the countries of northern and western Europe. When World War II ended, Europe was flooded with displaced persons and the U.S. initially tried to do everything in its power to block Jews from coming to the U.S.. Eventually America revised its policy—again by executive fiat, circumventing the national origin quota system. “It was a humanitarian decision but it was certainly determined by the U.S. emerging from the war as the champion of democracy,” says Mae Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia, who describes this in her book Impossible Subjects.

Eisenhower was also responsible for using his presidential powers to wave in 50,000 Hungarian refugees after the revolution in Budapest in 1956. This was more than ten times the quota for Hungary at the time. The national origins quota system was not eliminated until 1965, and Eisenhower was also responsible for taking executive action to let in a surge of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. This was also outside the immigration law, and presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson continued using executive action to let in more and more Cubans. Congress didn’t pass a law to deal with the Cubans until 1966.

The Cold War became a major driver of immigration policy, and it was often decided not by Congress, but by executive action in circumvention of existing immigration laws. “The president has always done all kinds of things in immigration matters, especially when Congress isn’t amenable to action,” says Ngai.

The loosely written refugee provisions became one such presidential loophole. After the war, many people were trying to come to the U.S. from Italy and Greece, but both—as southern European countries full of swarthy non-Protestants—were limited by the national origins quota law. But Italy and Greece also had strong Communist parties, and the United States was trying to fight Soviet influence in Europe. The quotas angered Italians and Greeks in America, and became another embarrassment for Washington. So Eisenhower, with a stroke of his pen, turned Italians and Greeks into refugees, though they were nothing of the sort.

Cold War geopolitics also fuelled migration from U.S. allies like South Korea and from places where American (and Soviet) shenanigans created the kind of turmoil that makes people pick up and move. The numbers that came out of these Cold War migrations are far bigger than the 170,000 immigration visas envisioned in the 1965 Immigration Act that got rid of the restrictive quota system. There are now 1.7 million people of Korean descent in the United States, and it’s not because of astronomical reproductive rates. There were two waves of Vietnamese immigration after the end of the Vietnam War—first, the South Vietnamese who now cluster in southern California (and in the Republican Party), followed by the larger wave of boat people. According to the 2010 census, over 1.5 million people in the United States claim Vietnamese origin. After the fall of the Shah, Iranians fled to the U.S. because that was where they had connections: Washington’s extensive military cooperation with the Shah spurred industries and friendships on both sides. Now, there are up to two million people of Iranian origin living in the U.S.

“Often, immigrants are talked about as ‘others’ that come into U.S. communities as naïfs with no knowledge of America,” says Andrew Friedman, who teaches the history of migration at Haverford. In fact, he says, many of these people “have a deep familiarity with the U.S.” because of America’s involvement in their countries.

An Italian immigrant family on board a ferry from the docks to Ellis Island, New York.
Getty Images

When it came to Cold War migration from Latin America, American policy varied widely by country—and still does. It has nothing to do with some objective, blindly just law and everything to do with politics. Cubans, for instance, have historically been the darlings among Hispanic migrants because of Washington’s intense stand-off with Havana (and, by extension, Moscow). The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 and, later, the Wet Foot, Dry Foot policy allowed Cubans to come to the United States by literally any means, be it on an immigration visa or a dinghy. It then paroled them into the country, granting them permanent residence status just one year later. If a Cuban comes over the Mexican border (this happens) next to a Honduran, the Cuban will get a green card in a year and the Honduran will likely be deported. There are now 1.5 million people of Cuban descent in the U.S.

In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration became embroiled in the civil wars of Central America, the treatment of refugees from those wars reflected American Cold War preferences, not any law. Nicaraguans, who were fleeing a country ruled by the leftist Sandinista government (and thrown into chaos by the Reagan-funded Contras), were welcomed into the U.S. There are now nearly 400,000 Nicaraguans in the United States. Salvadorans, on the other hand, who were fleeing a government that was propped up by Washington, had a quota of 100 imposed on the whole country. The resulting flood of Salvadoran refugees came illegally and was protected by the president renewing their temporarily protected status. It is a precarious way to live: the status lasts just one year, and the president has to extend it every single year.

“A refugee was someone fleeing communism,” says Ngai. “If you were fleeing a country friendly to the U.S., you were not a refugee.”

This year, as Thanksgiving bleeds into the rest of the winter holiday season, as Republicans sharpen their knives for the fight with Obama over his executive action—or “executive amnesty,” whatever you choose to call it—keep this in mind: American immigration law is perhaps one of the most mercurial sets of laws we have. It is not set in stone, nor has it ever been. Historically, it has depended on racism, trade priorities, and geopolitical considerations, just as it does today. And as Senator Ted Cruz, son of a Cuban immigrant, rails against Hondurans and Mexicans for coming to America illegally, keep in mind just how lucky his family is to come from a country that got the kind of special status that allowed, and still allows, Cubans to come to U.S. in ways that would be considered illegal for other populations and to get a green card in a year. Consider that this is not because of a law passed in the U.S. Congress, but because some guy we didn’t like seized power in 1959 and a few American presidents decided to help the Cuban bourgeoisie—and to stick it to Nikita Khrushchev. It’s why I and my 60 relatives are here, too. And it is quite likely that one of your ancestors got in through some giant, executive loophole ages and ages ago. Or got here when there were no loopholes because there were simply no laws pertaining to immigration. 

As you celebrate tonight, consider that the lesson here isn’t so much that Cubans or Soviet Jews shouldn’t be there, but that maybe some other people deserve a shot at an American Thanksgiving rather than an ill-informed lecture on the “law.”