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Eric Cantor Has a Chance to Redeem His Legacy

An Open Letter to the Lame Duck Congressman from Virginia

Op-Ed Special to La Prensa
By Al Abrams

Now that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R. Va.) has lost his seat to a Tea Party challenger who charged, of all things, that Cantor is “soft” on immigration, Cantor has a unique opportunity to redeem his legacy during his remaining months in Congress.

It is time to give him a history lesson on immigration.

Eric Cantor

Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, has been very proud of the fact that he has single-handedly blocked comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

But in reality, Eric Cantor should be ashamed of himself.

Why? Because Cantor himself might never have been born in the United States had Congress passed restrictive immigration quotas at the time his family emigrated from Eastern Europe (Russia, Romania and Latvia) in the late 1800s-early 1900s.

The clamor to restrict immigration from Eastern Europe had its beginnings in 1890 when Henry Cabot Lodge, then still a US Congressman from Massachusetts, sought to introduce legislation to establish quotas. Back then, the object was to keep more Jews – the Mexicans of yesteryear – out of the United States.

Indeed, the first to be termed “illegal immigrants” were not Mexicans, but Jews. And scores crossed over illegally into El Paso, Texas from Mexico.

As author Libby Garland points out in her book, “After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1925,” some Jews even entered the United States hidden among crates of booze being smuggled into the country from Cuba and Canada during Prohibition.

Surely Cantor must be aware of the historical precedents such as the 1921 Immigration Restriction Act (which for the first time in our history placed a numerical restriction on immigration) as well as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which is also known as the Asian Exclusion Act. When this draconian bill came before the US Senate for a vote, fewer than ten senators had the courage to cast a “Nay” vote.

Surprisingly, Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and himself a Jewish immigrant from Russia, closed his eyes to the anti-Semitic aspects of the bill and embraced it. Why? Gompers supported the act because he believed it would remove the threat of competition for U.S. workers.

But what about Mexicans under the immigration law?  As always, they were targeted on the twin issues of race and religion. Two decades later, Irving Pichel, a noted Hollywood director, was blacklisted by the motion picture industry because he had dared to make a movie, “A Medal for Benny,” about a Mexican-American family during World War Two. Of course many Mexican-Americans distinguished themselves by serving in the US military during that conflict.

Had the restrictive immigration quotas not been put into place, countless numbers of Jews might have escaped Hitler’s Holocaust. As historian Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. has said, in only one year out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 12 years in office did he permit the full use of the immigration quotas for Germany and other European countries with large Jewish populations.

But even then, bureaucrats at the State Department led by Breckinridge Long (despite the fact that Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s wife was Jewish, a fact that remained a well-kept secret at the time), worked against the directive.

Ironically, FDR made his decision in 1939, the same year that the refugee ship S.S. St. Louis with its helpless 937 German Jewish passengers, was refused entry into the U.S. and Cuba. Most aboard the ship, which was forced to return to Germany, were murdered in the Holocaust. That tragic episode is the basis of Katherine Anne Porter’s book and the subsequent film, “Ship of Fools.”

There was a clause in the immigration law that would have allowed Jewish refugee professors and students to enter the United States if they were guaranteed a place at a college or university. But despite the existence of this loophole, the State Department still blocked many Jews from escaping to the United States. The quota was never filled.

Medoff has written at length about FDR’s virtual total apathy to the plight of the Jewish refugees. But FDR, who many Jews still regarded as a hero of their cause, wasn’t alone.

Earlier, when a conference was held at Evian, France to address the problem of Jewish refugees, nations were asked how many Jews their country was willing to accept. The official reply of Canada was “None are too many.”

The only country that came forth and said they would accept the Jewish refugees was the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic, then led by General Rafael Trujillo. The tiny island nation said they would accept 50,000 to 100,000 Jewish refugees and offered them support if they would become farmers. But many were trapped in Germany when World War Two broke out in 1939, and only 500 made it to safety.

Meanwhile, the British closed the door to emigration to Palestine by issuing Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald’s restrictive White Paper.

Following the 1938 pogroms of Kristallnacht in Germany, Governor Lawrence Cramer of the US Virgin Islands offered to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. The restrictive immigration quotas did not affect the Virgin Islands because they were a territory of the United States. Cramer offered to extend the Jewish refugees tourist visas for as long as they needed to remain in the islands.

Contrast that courageous action with that of the then-Governor of the Territory of Alaska, Ernest Gruening. The territorial Governor, who was appointed by FDR, and who had been a highly respected Jewish journalist and editor of the venerable The Nation, blocked the admission of Jewish refugees – even though the program was advocated by FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Why? Because Gruening was looking forward to Alaska’s admission into the union, and thought that the admission of too many Jews to Alaska might be used by his opponents to block his political future. Alas, the strategy apparently worked for Gruening, who was elected as one of Alaska’s first two United States Senators and became an early opponent of the US involvement in Vietnam.

If the story sounds familiar Representative Cantor, it is because it was the basis for one of the greatest “what if?” novels ever written: Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” You may even have read it.

Simply put Mr. Cantor, restrictive immigration quotas do not work. Your concern that the US immigration system is broken has some merit – but as I’ve shown above, it has been broken for almost 100 years.

Now is the time to fix it.

Look in the mirror, Eric Cantor. Can you really face yourself?

Immigration reform is not “amnesty.” It is now time to step aside and take the leadership for which your position entitles you.

If the Cantor family had never immigrated to the United States, you might have died in Hitler’s ovens along with the Six Million.

There is no way that as a Jew, you can justify continuing to uphold a policy that closes our doors to immigrants.

It is not too late. Use your time wisely.

Make comprehensive immigration reform your legacy Representative Cantor – one that your family would have been proud to see. Use your last months in Congress to do the right thing.


Al Abrams was an immigration reporter at the Windsor Star at a time when there were only four people in North America on that beat. He has written about the Holocaust in “Special Treatment: The Untold Story of the Survival of Thousands in Jews in Hitler’s Third Reich.”


Copyright © 1989 to 2014 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/20/14 20:39:15 -0700.




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