She has no hard numbers, Libby Garland admits, as to how many Jews participated in illegal immigration into the US during the four decades from the 1921 imposition of national quotas and a numerical ceiling on immigrants, until the 1965 passage of the Hart-Cellar Act. She also makes it clear that Jews were never the prime objects of the restrictionists’ campaign. Nevertheless, she has performed a remarkable service in this book, which should be read by historians well beyond the small number who study the history of the Jews in the US.
Indeed, After They Closed the Gates tells a story larger than that of the group of Jews (some of whom entered the US illegally) whose actions tormented the established American Jewish community and whose history has been largely erased. Her story charts the evolution of US immigration policy, its complex aims and intended and unintended consequences. Garland shows how the restrictions of the 1920s represented not the beginning but the culmination of a project begun decades earlier as the US, like most Western nations, began to fret over who belonged in the nation and who did not; who could become a member and, equally importantly, who never could. New restrictions created documentation regimes that led to calls for greater supervision, and to expanding bureaucracies that developed ever more finely tuned procedures that inevitably failed. Legislative moves that declared some individuals to be legal almost inexorably spawned illegality. Garland makes the case that the history of European immigration, an immigration of white people able to become naturalised and acquire citizenship, is intertwined with that of non-white people, who were individuals devoid of those rights.
As for the Jews, Garland makes a compelling case as to why the story of this relatively small group’s historic encounter with legality and illegality does heavier intellectual work. An immigrant population of several million, the Jews enjoyed the privileges of whiteness by virtue of their European origins. But as the only sizeable non-Christian immigrant cohort in the late 19th century, when acceptance of the arguments of “scientific” racism was widespread, they also worried about their unstable place in US society.
Leaders of Jewish organisations had to walk a fine line between contesting the rise of restrictionism and condemning illegality, even among their own. Garland skilfully explores how they managed to navigate the laws, challenging them and sometimes aiding immigrants to evade them, while still striving to appear to be law-abiding white people. Jews in America were citizens with some political clout and financial resources, and considered themselves the custodians of the Jewish future on a worldwide scale. As Nazism reared its hideous head in Germany, and as anti-Semitism surfaced in central Europe’s newly created national states, particularly Poland, the US Congress imposed immigration restrictions. Where, America’s Jews asked, would the increasingly menaced and squeezed Jews of the world go, and how could the Jews of the US aid in circumventing or challenging laws that kept them out?
After They Closed the Gates offers much. Its densely packed material and carefully thought-out arguments demonstrate the complexities of US immigration history. It also makes a compelling case that the history of a small group, the Jews, can frame much larger developments. This is not a book for Jewish historians only.
After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965
By Libby Garland
University of Chicago Press, 312pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226122458 and 2595 (e-book)
Published 14 April 2014