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Libby Garland . After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921–1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 275 pp.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2016

Eli Lederhendler*
Hebrew University


Book Reviews: Modern Era
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 2016 

Libby Garland's study of Jewish migration to the United States during the era of immigration quotas based on national origins, and her particular interest in those migrants who entered the United States outside official or proper procedure, is timely. The American immigration regime continues to be a political issue of great concern to the administration, to Congress, and to voters, not to speak of its vital importance to undocumented immigrants already living in America and those wishing to join them.

Indeed, the timeliness of the book is embodied in its mission, since the study is nothing if not engagé: Garland sets out to explore historical issues that, she contends, highlight both the difficulty (at the very least) and the unfairness of strictly policed immigration controls. “There is a profound clash between unilateral state efforts to control borders and the forces of global migration,” she states, “for however much states seek to regulate the movement of people in and out of nations, there are always those who continue to move transnationally and who elude state control” (216). Hence, “Illegal immigration points to the impossibility of defining citizens and borders, insiders and outsiders, as cleanly as states would like” (216).

Garland correctly notes that although there was never a “Jewish quota” within the 1920s’ national origins immigration program, Jews were nonetheless considered to be one among a number of “suspect” groups, whether they were judged on the basis of their purported racial-stock attributes or on the grounds of their radical-leftist political affinities. The issue of controlling the volume of Jewish immigration, along with other eastern and southern European migration, thus turned on the undesirability, and perhaps, downright dangers accompanying the influx of such people into American society. With this explanation in place, Garland is set to demonstrate how Jewish immigrants (legal and illegal) fared then and how this story might resonate with present-day dilemmas surrounding post-2001 US migration controls, policing of immigrants, and deportations.

The book opens with a welcome and carefully parsed review of US immigration practices from the early years of the nation until the end of the nineteenth century. Here, Garland reminds us not only that immigration was hardly ever free of policy controls of some sort, but also that the apparatus of land-border demarcation, federal bureaucracy, population control, documentation of individuals and cataloging of groups, and the differentiation between nationals and aliens were all very much interconnected with each other.

Thereafter, Garland's discussion moves to Jewish immigration issues per se, beginning with a survey of Jewish organizational efforts during the 1920s to deal with incipient conflicts of interest between civic legitimacy and public standing, on the one hand, and the urge to continue helping Jews in need from other countries—particularly those whose lives seemed to depend on finding their way to a place of safety and freedom. Although no single posture on migration issues characterized all of the Jewish organizations, they accrued a significant record in terms of proimmigrant advocacy, including work toward mitigating restrictions and minimizing deportations. Insofar as they appeared to be supporting or even soliciting continued Jewish immigration, aiding and abetting those who might circumvent the letter or the spirit of statutes and regulations, they faced allegations of wrongdoing.

Dilemmas of conscience along these lines appear to have plagued any number of Jewish communal leaders, including a rabbi in El Paso in the early 1920s, when confronted with illicit cross border migration of east European Jews arriving via Mexico. This latter case seems to be a particularly acute example. Unfortunately, apart from dwelling on the repercussions of such incidents, Garland leaves the reader with only a vague impression of how many people might have been involved (“hundreds” are mentioned on one occasion). The matter of numbers is not fundamental, but it is of some significance if we are to arrive ultimately at a point of proportion and perspective. Thus, during the years from 1921 to 1924, before the second quota enactments, over 150,000 Jews immigrated legally to the United States (68). How do the numbers of “illegals” stack up against the preponderance of legal immigrants?

The question of proportion between legal and illegal immigrants is a serious question, as is the question of the relative statistical weight of illegal immigrant Jews as compared to other incoming populations. In the two main chapters in which Garland treats Jewish immigrant smuggling and other subterfuges (forgeries, paid agents, identity falsification, impersonations, bribery, indefinite extensions of travel or tourist visas, etc.), she is able to supply a wealth of detail and analysis of the circumstances that surrounded such back-door entries. The one thing that still seems to elude both the historian and the reader is a clear sense of quantification. It helps somewhat to know that Jews (“along with Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Greeks, and Italians”) had formerly contributed to a “cohort” of illegal migrants along the Canadian and Mexican borders, helped by paid smugglers, and that in the 1920s the trade in human trafficking, already well established, “flourished and expanded” (92). Indeed, the business side of Jewish illegal immigration into America is said to have outstripped the similarly well-established business of Jewish cross border smuggling within Europe (92). Garland has done her research thoroughly, to be sure; but what is one to make of quotes from American official records, such as one that referred to “a great bunch” of people who were heading to America from Warsaw, armed with false documents (93)? The New York Times (of May 1924) is quoted as reporting that “bootlegged” immigrants in unknown numbers had entered the United States, with estimates ranging from 17,000 to 200,000 (94). Havana-based American diplomats in the early 1930s spoke of some 30,000 Europeans who may have smuggled their way from Cuba to the United States, including perhaps 18,000 Jews (94). Here, at least, we begin to get a possible inkling of scale, if not precise information.

The nature of illegal immigration, after all, is that it so often escapes anyone's notice and is inherently untabulated. Indeed, Garland tells us outright that “the number of Jews who succeeded in entering the United States illegally … is impossible to know precisely” (145). To make up for the numerical vagueness, Garland provides rich descriptions of the techniques of immigrant smuggling, its reliance on ethnic networks, its connections with criminality, and its role in the international traffic in women. Moreover, some of the best parts of the book deal with the subjective matter of awareness of the topic in Jewish discourse, both public and private, and with the public activities undertaken by Jewish organizations with respect to liberalizing official policies. Here Garland is on much firmer ground, and her contribution to the entire edifice of Jewish immigration history—American Jewish immigration history in particular—is very significant.

The subtext of her research is twofold: Jews as an American group have a stake of their own in the country's history of illegal immigration, and consequently they have always claimed a place at the national negotiating table when it comes to immigration control. Secondly, and perhaps more speculatively, governments (including the US government) are bound to lose, in some fashion, when it comes to the strict formulation of laws regulating the different regimens of movement to which different sorts of people are entitled, and the achievement of manageable (and fair) techniques of enforcement.