Eighty years ago today, my father received his Immigration Visa. Six months earlier he had left Poland, sailed from France to Havana, and was denied asylum. Later, as his ship Le Flandre docked in Veracruz, Mexico, a medical emergency occurred. My father saved a stranger's life thereby saving his own. Officials allowed my dad to stay in Mexico while his American wife arranged for a U.S. visa. Le Flandre was forced to return to France with its remaining 96 Jewish passengers.
I imagine my father full of hope standing before a clerk at the American Consul in Mexico City as he filled out a stamped form on Page 21 of my dad's 1939 Polish passport. On the upper left, the clerk crossed out the phrase "Non-Quota." Sandwiched between that and "Quota" he scrawled "Polish 1st pref." I believe my father was given that privilege because of his wife, Rose. After their hasty wedding in Poland, Rose had returned to New York and filed the necessary paperwork for my father's visa.
The next day, November 17, 1939, my father sailed from Veracruz back to Cuba. Unlike half a year before, however, Rose did not travel to meet him. From there he sailed alone to New York City.
Armed with his immigrant Identification Card Number 105-3183, my father thus became one of 7,315 Poles legally allowed to enter the United States. He was not one of 43,450 Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied territory because when he left, Germany had not yet invaded Poland. The number of Jews admitted was a little over half the total of 82,998 immigrants in 1939, according to the American Jewish Yearbook's Statistics of Jews.
To give you a sense of perspective regarding legal refugees today, 53,691 people were admitted here in 2017, according to that year's Homeland Security Report. An additional 26,568 were granted asylum. Of those, 7,506 were married to a spouse already here.
My father arrived at Pier 13 at the foot of Wall Street near the East River on the afternoon of November 26. Perhaps Rose met him there. Or perhaps he took a taxi to the Lower East Side to Rose's apartment at Second Avenue and 7th street, on the same block as Ratner's, her family's famous dairy restaurant. (Yes, there was another Ratner's on Delancey, owned by the same family.) That seems more likely, given that shortly after he arrived, my father learned that Rose had reunited with her lover, a gangster who was partners with the notorious Jewish mobsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegal. Rose expected my greenhorn father to cover because her parents disapproved of her romance. Their marriage was a sham. My father and Rose never co-habitated and, if you consider that, both sidestepped the law.
My father arrived here three days after Thanksgiving. He waited another year to first experience that holiday. I'm sure he was deeply grateful to be here.
Jewish refugees back then were unwelcome. The 1938 Gallup Poll, taken two weeks after Kristallnacht in November 1938, asked Americans, "Do you approve or disapprove of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany?" Ninety-four percent indicated that they disapproved. Yet when asked, "Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?" seventy-two percent responded "no."
Despite his desperate and questionable entry, my father proved himself a worthy, law-abiding citizen. After completing a medical residency in 1943, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corp and treated wounded soldiers throughout the campaign in Northern France, including the horrendous Battle of the Bulge. Before he departed, he hired a detective to prove Rose's adultery. When he returned, he extricated himself from his marriage, married my mother, and completed another residency in obstetrics and gynecology. He delivered countless babies. Later, he further specialized in infertility and devised a surgical technique so that a woman previously unable to conceive could become a mother.
Are you under the impression that today Americans look askance on legal and illegal immigrants? They do not, according to a June Pew Research Center study; 38% say legal immigration into the United States should be kept at its present level, while 32% say it should be increased, and 24% say it should be decreased. Here's the breakout along party lines: 40% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say that legal immigration into the U.S. should be increased, 39% say it should be kept at its present level and 16% say it should be decreased. A larger share of Republicans currently supports decreasing (33%) rather than increasing (22%) legal immigration into the U.S. Thirty-nine percent say it should be kept at its present level.
As for illegal immigrants, most Americans feel sympathy. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) are very or somewhat sympathetic toward immigrants who are here illegally. Eighty-six percent of Democrats say they are sympathetic toward illegal immigrants, compared with about half of Republicans (48%).
Yet now the Trump administration is cracking down not only on illegal migrants, but on refugees and asylum-seekers who wish to legally immigrate. The United States will accept at most 18,000 refugees, down from 30,000 this year and 110,000 two years ago.
And that's not all. Trump recently issued a proclamation that would have denied Green Cards to immigrants if they could not afford health insurance within 30 days of arrival. The alternative: demonstrate that you could pay your medical expenses. The rule would have favored wealthy immigrants. The day before the proclamation was to have gone into effect, November 2, a judge issued a temporary restraining order. We will see in a few weeks how this will be resolved.
Not to mention awaiting the outcome of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) case currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
If I were to present to members of Trump's base my father's story and these statistics, it wouldn't matter. I don't get why. What made Trump, his lieutenants, and his supporters disconnect from their ancestors' arrivals on these shores? Perhaps they just have the same cognitive dissonance as Americans polled 81 years ago. In a weird way, I find myself longing for that explanation. It would be preferable to the pure hatefulness of the Trump administration with its unimaginably cruel policies, "shadow diplomacy" probed at the opening impeachment hearings, and other underworld high crimes and misdemeanors yet to be unveiled.