When Jews joined the protests around the country this weekend against President Trump’s executive order on immigration, they were largely doing so on behalf of Muslim refugees and migrants who found themselves in a legal limbo and barred from entering the United States.
But nearly 100 years ago Jewish protesters gathered to demand the release of fellow Jews, who were caught up in a legal drama eerily similar to the one that has played out in airports and courts since Friday.
On Nov. 15, 1923, 2,000 Jews rallied at the Lower Manhattan headquarters of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to protest the detention of 3,000 of their relatives at Ellis Island. They appealed to Republican President Calvin Coolidge to ease the strict moratorium on immigration that had been put in place in 1921 under the “Emergency Quota Act” and re-upped the following year.
Anti-immigrant groups had long argued that immigrants from poorer and “backward” regions of southern and eastern Europe were a drain on American resources and brought with them radical ideas like anarchism, communism and socialism. Some labor unions, too, joined the anti-immigrant spirit, arguing that cheap labor would depress wages.
Like Muslim travelers detained at U.S. airports this week or left in limbo in transit countries as a result of Trump’s executive order, Jewish and other immigrants often set sail unaware of changes in the immigration law, or aboard ships whose unscrupulous operators didn’t inform them that there were strict quotas already in place.
According to the JTA story on the 1923 protest, leaders of the demonstration “urged that a large delegation be sent to Washington to request that the detained immigrants be admitted. They are planning a protest mass meeting if the Government deports their relatives.”
On Dec. 3, JTA reported that Secretary of Labor James J. Davis approved the deportation of hundreds of the detained immigrants. By 1924, with the passage of the fiercely nativist Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, immigration from outside of Western Europe slowed to a trickle.
A month after the protest outside HIAS headquarters, Nathan Krass, spiritual leader of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, gave a fiery sermon, quoted in JTA, railing against the anti-immigrant fervor of the day.
“Imagine what would have happened if a committee of Indian immigration officers had stood on Plymouth Rock, and, after admitting ten Pilgrim Fathers, had said, ‘Your quota is full. The rest of you go back to England’,” said Krass. “Yet we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants.”
Today, HIAS continues to assist immigrants, processing more than 4,000 refugee asylum applications annually, at this point most of them for non-Jews and many of them impacted by last week’s executive order.