Does Jewish History Have Anything to Say about America's Immigration Mess?

As Jewish experience would suggest, a dichotomy embedded in the U.S. system distorts reality and makes for damaging policy.

Central American immigrants walk toward the border fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 1, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images.

Central American immigrants walk toward the border fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 1, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images.

March 4 2019
About the author

Nicholas M. Gallagher, a third-year student at the New York University School of Law, is a former staff writer at the American Interest, where he concentrated mainly on immigration issues.

As is all too clear from reading today’s headlines about Central Americans arriving at the southern American border, or Africans braving the Mediterranean in open boats, the immigration policies of America and the West are beset by a fundamental tension. It can be posed as a question: who is a migrant, and who qualifies as a refugee? The distinction between those two categories has become crucial to the functioning of America’s and most of the Western world’s immigration systems.

But that distinction is also of surprisingly recent vintage. The phenomenon of people moving from place to place in search of new opportunities or in flight from violence is as old as mankind. As a matter of law, however, the dichotomy that defines one as either a refugee or a migrant dates only to the middle of the 20th century. Until that point, the “normal” immigration systems of Western countries addressed immigrants as migrants. While not everyone applying for entry was moving for economic gain—many moved to be with family members, for instance—all were treated legally as though moving voluntarily.

The new understanding emerged in recognition of, and in reaction to, the widespread displacement and suffering in the wake of World War II and the bitter ethnic upheavals that accompanied decolonization. From about 1950 onward, this new understanding became codified in a series of treaties and agreements, and particularly in the creation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As a matter of U.S. law, it was for a long time reflected primarily in pragmatic or ad-hoc accommodations. Indeed, it was only in 1980 that the U.S. formally defined “refugee” in the context of immigration law. Migrants, by contrast, then became those who were not refugees.

This series of historical and contingent circumstances has, however, made the division between the two categories seem sharper than it may actually be. As it happens, nothing illustrates this point better than the migratory history of one group in particular: the Jews. Two new books, one about that history and the other about how to repair the troubled American immigration system, shed much light on the subject.


I. The Great Wave and the Golden Door


They came by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. Fleeing the pogroms and state-sanctioned economic discrimination that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Jews of the Russian empire poured out of Eastern Europe into Germany and Austria. But they did not stop, as their medieval ancestors had so often done, at the nearest safe and relatively prosperous town or province. Instead, once in Germany, they boarded the new railroads to reach Hamburg (or, in southern Europe, other ports), embarked on one of the new steamships that for the first time had made transatlantic travel cheap and fast, and made their way to the United States.

For complex and salutary historical reasons, America displayed an accepting attitude toward Jews, even a welcoming one. This alone made it markedly different from any part of the Old World. In addition, as the Second Industrial Revolution took hold, the young country was hungry for immigrants to work in its booming factories. Then, as the good news spread via cheap newsprint, and the first newcomers sent back word via transatlantic telegraph of what lay beyond the Golden Door, millions and millions more—Jews and Gentiles alike—followed. This was the start of the Great Wave, the largest migration in Jewish history and until recently in U.S. history.

Were the Jews who led it refugees, or migrants? Should we think of them as fleeing Russian persecution, or as chasing opportunities far beyond the nearest border? As we’ve seen, the question is in a sense anachronistic—the modern legal framework distinguishing the two was created more than a half-century later. In other senses, though, it was vital: Americans debated how best to conceptualize the newcomers, and also how best to help those still left in the old country.

The results were varied. On the one hand, some of the first major protests took place against Russian human-rights abuses, with ex-President Grover Cleveland leading a rally in Madison Square Garden, and with both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans raising money for relief funds. On the other hand, there was the emergence of the Jewish garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side, for the proprietors of which the new arrivals were not objects of charity but a source of labor.

Nor was this seeming bifurcation of circumstances a characteristic only of the Great Wave of East European Jews. To the contrary, as Robert Chazan sets out to show in a new book, Refugees or Migrants: Pre-Modern Jewish Population Movement, it is a pattern that has recurred throughout Jewish history.

Chazan, a professor of Jewish history at New York University, presents a survey of Jewish population movements from late antiquity to the end of the 18th century. Although the Great Wave is thus technically outside his purview, it crops up in his book even more frequently than do the two other momentous events foreshadowed by his subject: the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel.

As Jews have moved from place to place, Chazan contends, they have more often been seeking new opportunities than fleeing persecution.

Refugees or Migrants is a scholarly work—scholarly both in the sense that it offers a repository of knowledge and in the sense that a substantial section of it is devoted to categorizing and assessing the work of past thinkers on the subject. That section is perhaps not for the lay reader. But such a reader will assuredly be interested in Chazan’s main argument, which is that as Jews have moved from place to place ever since their ancient scattering from the Promised Land, they have much more often been voluntarily seeking new opportunities than fleeing persecution.

In advancing this argument, Chazan, following the late historian Salo Baron, questions the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history—in this case, the idea that all, or nearly all, Jewish population movements since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE have been forced wanderings in response to oppression and violence. As he stipulates, this concept was in fact embraced and articulated in a remarkable variety of sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish or anti-Jewish: from the traditional Jewish teaching based on the warning in Deuteronomy that for their sins “the Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other,” to the medieval Christian view that similarly saw the Jews’ wandering as divinely ordained, but in this case as punishment for their ancestors’ role in the killing of Jesus. Modern historians, for their part, even as they rejected divine causes in favor of material ones, continued to write of Jewish population movements as involuntary.

Chazan contends forcefully that this account mistakes official expulsions—an infrequent pattern that began in France only in the 12th century and occurred fitfully in Europe thereafter—for the entire sweep of Jewish diaspora history.

Chazan is at his strongest in writing about the European Middle Ages (his area of academic specialty). His exploration of the expulsion decree promulgated in 1182 by Philip Augustus of France, of the way in which, although limited in scope to the crown lands, it differed radically from anything that had come before, and of its role in solidifying royal power even as it set a tragic and destructive precedent for European Jewry, is especially evocative and persuasive. So, too, is his description of how a cycle of princely recruitment, exploitation, and then expulsion of Jews, a cycle starting in England and France and then rippling onward, drew Jews northward out of the ancient diaspora regions of the Mediterranean and pushed them eastward in rolling waves. Here one finds oneself wishing for more, and disappointed that the narrative, rather than continuing at this level of particularity once the migrations hit Poland and Eastern Europe, fades into generalities.

Much less convincing, in any case, is Chazan’s propounding of his own near-monolithic theory. To hear him tell it, every Jewish population movement that was not a state-ordered expulsion constituted “voluntary migration in search of better circumstances.” Not even the widespread or “pan-European” anti-Jewish violence that accompanied some of the Crusades and then the arrival of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, according to Chazan, provided an incentive to relocate.

This seems supportable only if measured in a short time-scale. Doesn’t it seem possible, not to say likely, that if your neighbors turn violently upon you every time something bad happens, you’d be much more inclined to take new opportunities whenever they did pop up? Could the resultant movement really be called purely voluntary economic migration?

At other points, Chazan appears to be simply begging the question. For instance, in the absence of evidence as to why the center of Jewish population shifted from Palestine to Mesopotamia by the 5th century CE, he asserts:

[W]e may reasonably surmise that the chaotic circumstances in the 3rd-century Roman Empire had significant impact on the Jewish population movement . . . as Jews became aware of better living circumstances not all that far away. To be sure, this bespeaks rational assessment of alternative circumstances and volitional movement. Jews were moving freely and of their own accord, as migrants not refugees.

But, as Chazan admits, we really have no firm idea of what was going on at that time, so his conclusion, however reasonable-sounding, is not derived from evidence but imposed in the absence of fact.

Above all, what’s missing is any sense of a middle ground. In other words, Chazan’s biggest problem lies in his being wedded to the idea of a dichotomous refugee/migrant distinction—the same dichotomous distinction with which we began and to which, in our contemporary circumstances, we can now return.


II. The Roots of “Refugee/Migrant”


In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there were millions of displaced persons spread across Europe. The Germans had taken more than eleven million people to Germany as slave laborers during the war. Once the war ended, the Czechoslovakians, to take one example of many, expelled 2.2 million ethnic Germans; another half-million fled Yugoslavia.

And yet, though the numbers were overwhelming, in one respect the solution to the problem was relatively simple: members of a given ethnic group, it was assumed, should be sent to, and accepted by, the nearest nation-state in which their group already constituted the majority. The post-colonial civil wars that broke out shortly after World War II reinforced this view: think of the millions of Muslims fleeing into Pakistan from India, and Hindus fleeing into India from Pakistan.

Thus, strict legal and international protection for refugees was mixed with the expectation that their situation would largely be dealt with near the country from which they had fled and often by means of states ethnically similar to their own ethnic affiliation. (The exception, of course, was the displaced Jews of Europe, who after 1948 were instead able to go to the newly established state of Israel; the historian Walter Russell Mead has coined the term “refugee Zionism” for the encouragement and support extended to these Jewish migrants by both Gentile and Jewish Americans.)

From the point of view of the West, including the United States, the paradigm basically held through the end of the 20th century. Refugee problems were something that should be dealt with overseas, and those problems could be ameliorated through, for example, foreign aid. To be sure, small numbers of refugees—in the thousands or tens of thousands per year—were admitted to America through its immigration system, and occasionally a larger ad-hoc program was created to help those to whom we owed a special debt, as in the case of the Vietnamese boat people. But in general the many millions displaced by war and ethnic violence were seen as a foreign-policy problem, not a domestic-policy problem.

But later, in order to plug a gap formed by this conceptual and legal order, another arrangement was created. To many people, it felt wrong to turn away individuals who had somehow made their way to the customs line at JFK airport, or had taken to small boats from a place like Cuba, and to send them back, even if not to their place of persecution, then out into a deeply uncertain world. Thus was a program set up that would allow them to claim asylum in the U.S. In order to obtain asylum, one had to qualify as a refugee, a status defined by international law. But international law did not and does not mandate the U.S. asylum system, and particularly not its long-term path to legal permanent residence.

In addition to those applying at the border, the asylum system provided (and still provides) a defense against deportation for those who had entered the country illegally but faced serious threats if returned home. Furthermore, the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program was instituted in 1990 to shelter visitors whose homeland had been struck by a refugee-creating event like civil war, or by a natural disaster, while they themselves were in the U.S.

These programs, and especially the asylum program, were at first relatively small. International air travel was expensive in the 20th century, the Third World was much poorer, and many of the most miserable places, like the Soviet Union, were closely guarded and hard to escape from.

As for the main U.S. immigration system, it, too, reflected the realities of mid-century. The Great Wave had lasted until 1924, when, after a long period of anti-immigration agitation, the Johnson-Reed Act slammed the doors of America as shut as they have ever been. They stayed that way until 1965 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which, with modification, remains the basis of today’s system as well.

When the INA was written, the American industrial base was still predominantly blue-collar. Moreover, passage of the act in many ways reified the newfound political power of the descendants of Great Wave immigrants as well as the nostalgia of the country as a whole for what had come to be seen as an integral part of the American story. Thus, the new system would be open to most people—meaning that it would make few attempts to discriminate on the basis of education or previous achievement—and it would emphasize the sort of family connections that had become so important to Great Wave lore.

In short, both the new American immigration system as a whole and several of its auxiliary systems were built around the dichotomy between migrants (the main system) and refugees (asylum, TPS, etc.); in doing so, both also reflected a series of assumptions commonly accepted at the time. And the effects of this change were momentous, if not what everyone might have had in mind—an era not of renewed European immigration but of Latin American and Asian immigration that continues to the present.

And yet: in reality, rather than in law, refugees and migrants represented less a dichotomy than points on a spectrum. Aside from the case of those fleeing war or the most dramatic sorts of natural disasters, the division that seems so intuitive to us today was emphatically not the way most people at most times thought of newcomers. Rather, as we’ve seen in the materials mustered by Robert Chazan, or from history beyond his scope like that of the Great Wave, most people moved for a complex of reasons that included both unpleasant realities at home and attractive new conditions abroad.

Are the Central Americans fleeing gang violence migrants or refugees? They are both, and perhaps also neither.

Moreover, this reality is now once again becoming the norm. Are the Central Americans who flee gang violence, or Africans who want out from under the thumb of thuggish regimes or local instability, migrants or refugees? The answer is both—but also, in any traditional sense, neither.

Millions of Central Americans are fleeing gang violence that would not rise to the level traditionally needed to justify a refugee or asylum claim but that is nevertheless deadly. At the same time, they are not stopping once over the next border; instead, they are crossing several hundred miles of Mexican territory to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life. Meanwhile, Africans and Middle Easterners are pouring northward and northwestward toward Europe, often crossing the Mediterranean in open boats. With the exception of Syrians, Yemenis, Afghans, and Libyans, most are not fleeing war zones but conditions of a more ordinary terribleness—and seeking economic and social improvement.

Of course, even if widespread gang violence or oppression of the sort suffered under many African dictatorships does not rise to the level of threat needed to qualify one as a refugee, many Westerners would regard simply living in Third World conditions as a sort of de-facto humanitarian crisis, just as they would regard suffering under the shoddy quasi-dictatorships that are still the norm in many parts of the world as almost a de-facto war crime. At the same time, however, it’s undeniable that those leaving have substantial economic motives, which would normally classify them as migrants.

In addition, most are not fleeing on foot, or crammed into boats, with only what they can carry, as they head for the nearest border or port. (Exceptions include many Syrians, the Rohingya, escapees from certain African civil wars, Venezuelans heading to Colombia, and a few others.) Instead, most of those crossing the Mediterranean, making their way through Mexico, or heading to Australia, as much as they may be fleeing in fear, are able to travel huge distances largely due to the decreased cost of transit, increased incomes in the third world, and the vision of first-world prosperity transmitted by social media.

In these circumstances, the American and European asylum systems are coming under special stress. Attempts thus far to deal with the situation have in many ways made it worse.

In 2009 the Obama administration altered longstanding U.S. policy and recognized fear both of gang violence and of domestic violence as grounds for asylum. The traditional reasons for not recognizing such categories as grounds for asylum were tragic but realistic: so much of the world suffers from these problems (or similar ones, like low-level government thuggery) that to accept them as reason for granting asylum would be to blow a massive hole in the side of any immigration system. And that is exactly what has happened.

Indeed, the new asylum policy induced a change of behavior among prospective immigrants themselves, as those coming up from Central America began to surrender in large numbers to border patrol, after which they would pass the initial “credible-fear” screening test (a threshold purposefully set low) and then be paroled into the U.S. to await further action. As immigration courts grew ever more overloaded, wait times for hearings expanded to their present length of about two years, extending by at least that long the span of one’s ability to blend into the undocumented population as well as the chance of long-term legal status.

Even worse, Central American families began sending their children, unaccompanied, to the U.S.—counting on similar provisions of the law to ensure their entry even if caught. Nor, needless to say, was the system designed to accommodate the sheer numbers that are currently pouring in. Nearly 93,000 credible-fear claims were lodged in 2018, as opposed to just over 5,000 in 2007. To put that number in perspective: it is equal to almost ten percent of annual legal immigration to the U.S.—and it is trending upward.

It’s no surprise, then, that the issue has become a political football, with immigration restrictionists decrying a disastrously huge loophole in American law while pro-immigration and anti-Trump forces resist any attempts to modify the asylum system. The administration for its part has responded in ways—most notably, trying to use family-separation policies as a deterrent—that many decry as outright cruel. When, for example, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to repeal the rules about fear of gangs and domestic violence, the Justice Department became entangled in court fights that are still going on.


III. A Refreshing Answer


If asking “migrant, or refugee?” can obscure more than it reveals (as we’ve seen in the case of Robert Chazan’s book), and if it has in fact done just that, to the great and growing detriment of the American immigration system, are there better ways of dealing with the issue? And if so, what, by way of concrete measures, might be done to rectify the situation?

Fortunately, refreshing and realistic answers to those questions are to be found in another recent book: Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders. Salam, formerly the executive editor of National Review and now president of the Manhattan Institute, presents a smart, lively, and concise survey of the current reality of American immigration coupled with a set of recommendations going forward.

As the son of first-generation Bangladeshi immigrants, Salam deploys a first-hand perspective on the experience of immigration. In his book, he weaves in not just emotional color from his own circumstances growing up in New York but subtle and unblinkered observations on, for instance, the ways in which an immigrant’s experience shifts as the size of the expatriate community around him grows. But much more than just a subjective account, Melting Pot or Civil War? displays deep learning, a mastery of the academic literature, and close familiarity with relevant statistical studies. The result is a remarkably more nuanced picture of modern immigration than we are accustomed to getting from the media.

One example:

There is a widespread belief that immigrants and their offspring have poverty-defying superpowers that natives do not. . . . But immigrants are humans, and like most successful humans, they do better if they start with huge advantages. Spectacular immigrant success stories—the billionaire entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners—often start in rich and urbanized societies, such as Israel, Taiwan, Canada, and Europe’s market democracies, where future immigrants acquire skills that are readily transferable to the United States. Superstar immigrants from developing countries are typically raised in families drawn from the best-off, most well-educated strata of their homelands.

Conversely, Salam proceeds to observe, “There is no question that a disproportionately large share of immigrants are impoverished, and that many arrive in the U.S. with minimal schooling and poor English”—and this has generated consequences of its own. From dependence on public assistance to low high-school graduation rates unto the third generation, those who do not come from rich countries or from top-strata backgrounds—even if their lot in life has improved, often immensely, by comparison with their home-country standards—often struggle to succeed by U.S. standards.

Immigrants to the U.S. are splitting into two societies:  the well-prepared blend into a multi-ethnic upper class, while those lacking education and connections struggle against great odds.

Indeed, Salam’s data suggest that immigrants are splitting into two societies, quite like native-born Americans. At the top, immigrants who come to the U.S. well-prepared for the modern knowledge economy blend into a multi-ethnic upper class, succeeding in their careers and intermarrying. (Salam terms this process one of “amalgamation,” probably playing off the original melting-pot metaphor.)

At the bottom, immigrants lacking education and connections will face strong odds against their ability to move up in a world where low-skill labor is in less and less demand. In turn, their children will suffer from the problems associated with inner-city schools, poverty, ghettoization, and stigmatization, even as they rightly expect as much and as good as any other American citizen. In the worst case, Salam (who calls this alternative “racialization”) fears serious—and sustained—discontent.

A strongly-held traditional view has been that to take such socio-economic factors into account in formulating immigration policy is grossly unfair, since it arbitrarily “excludes those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied, without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.” (The words are President Woodrow Wilson’s in vetoing a literacy test for immigrants.) This view is at the heart of Great Wave nostalgia: our forebears, Jewish or Gentile, came out of old countries where they had little opportunity but, once in America, were able to advance far enough by the sweat of their brow to set their children and grandchildren on the path to education and success. As Salam reminds us, however, the blue-collar jobs that awaited the first-generation immigrants and let them build a home no longer exist, and the escalator that once lifted their children from factory floor to executive suite may well be broken.

There is some good news, though: the old reality that only white, upper-class Europeans were highly educated is as outdated as the idea that there are still garment factories in Manhattan. By 2020, just China and India together are projected to account for 40 percent of college graduates worldwide, and many immigrants to the U.S. are already among the most educated members of their home societies. In this respect, at least, and despite what many critics allege, a shift to emphasizing skilled immigration would not mark a return to a Eurocentric system.

Salam’s conclusion flows from these insights. The greatest need, he writes, is to relieve the pressure on lower-income Americans, including the recent immigrants among them. The way to do that—and to help the existing poor among both newcomers and native-borns—is to cut back the number of low-skilled and increase the number of high-skilled immigrants.

For that purpose, he recommends shifting to a points system, though one with significant allowances for family-based immigration. (In such a system, would-be immigrants are awarded a certain number of points on the basis of education, skills, connections to the U.S., and so forth, and admitted if they cross a threshold number.) Notably, and despite the characterization of Salam’s book by some reviewers as (mildly) restrictionist, this could be done even while maintaining or increasing immigration levels. It’s the change in composition, and the shift in national attention toward helping integrate the children and grandchildren of low-skilled workers, that constitute Salam’s main focus.

What about the refugee/migrant distinction and the asylum crisis in this scenario? Salam repeatedly addresses that issue as well, and makes a series of substantive suggestions. At the top of the list must be closer cooperation with Mexico. Actual immigration of Mexicans, illegal as well as legal, peaked about a decade ago as their country became wealthier (and as the U.S. went into recession). Properly managed, Salam writes, Mexico could act as a 1,500-mile-thick wall between America and the Central American countries. At the same time, if we conduct the relationship well, Mexico could become a buffer that absorbs and protects migrant/refugees heading our way, and may in time provide them with a permanent home. (I view this as a much more functional version of what Turkey is to the EU vis-à-vis Syrian refugees.) Longer-term, the key is to see to it that Central Americans (and others) become safer and more prosperous in their own countries.

Rather than importing immigrants to run nursing homes in the U.S., why not help retiring Americans move another half-hour south as the JetBlue flies?

Salam also puts forward a suggestion that has been made independently by Walter Russell Mead: namely, to allow Americans to use their Medicare and Social Security benefits to retire south of the border, especially in Mexico. Rather than importing immigrants to run nursing homes in the U.S., the logic here goes, why not let Grandma and Grandpa move another half-hour south as the JetBlue flies? It wouldn’t be for everyone, but plenty of native-born Americans would welcome retirement in sunny countries where the dollar goes much farther and where, increasingly, many already speak the local language or have family ties. Meanwhile, Yankee dollars (tied perhaps to rules about bank transparency and probity) would help poorer neighbors where they are needed most.

Further abroad, Salam recommends the planting, with first-world backing, of start-up cities in Africa and third-world Asia to help promote economic growth rather than flight. Ultimately, this issue merges into a foreign-policy debates, but one does not have to be a neoconservative to recognize the need to do what we can to promote good governance and prosperity for those who will otherwise feel they have no option other than to flee.

Melting Pot or Civil War? should be read by anyone seriously interested in the immigration debate, including and perhaps especially liberals who hold opposing policy preferences. If they do not endorse the changes Salam recommends, let them think through alternative solutions to the problems he raises concerning the unstable status quo. But I fear that, both with the sub-issue of asylum reform and with the larger issue of immigration reform, the debate has reached the point of stultification. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has quite accurately put it, “liberalism’s current relationship to open borders is asymptotic: not for it, but for every step toward it.”

The left is being propelled toward this stance by an emphasis on feeling rather than thinking, the sort of emotional charge that has prompted three Democratic presidential candidates, as of this writing, to call for the demolition of the existing border fence over and above the cancellation of Donald Trump’s wall. As for the right, it has developed its own distractions from the need to think clearly about intelligent reform.

Feelings are fickle, and American historical feelings on immigration have been notably so. Despite the rosy legend of a land of immigrants, Americans have tended to swing wildly from periods of near-total openness to periods of extreme closure in which, either de facto or de jure, the gates to immigrants have been shut. For those concerned with refugees and asylum-seekers in particular, this alone should offer stimulus for thought.


IV. Keeping the Door Ajar


It is an uncomfortable truth that in the 20th century, when it mattered most, America’s migrant-based system saved many, many times more people than did pro-refugee sentiment. Two-million European Jews were able to make it to America as migrants during the open-door period of the Great Wave; only an infinitesimal fraction of that number came in after the doors closed.

At that point in the 1920s and 30s, anti-Semitism undoubtedly played a role in the exclusion of Jewish immigrants in particular. But there were also millions of non-Jews straining to escape the Depression, the horrors of Communism and fascism, and the looming prospect of war. Many had co-ethnics lobbying in the U.S. on their behalf; none succeeded in any great number. Those who escaped had done so earlier, thanks to the migration system. Indeed, even after the Holocaust, America kept the doors mostly shut to refugees.

This is a national shame. But before Americans judge their forebears too harshly—the really sharp condemnation should be reserved for the failure to open the gates before and during the war—it’s worth recalling two things.

First, America has never helped more than a fraction of the world’s refugees through admission. Out there somewhere in the world today are 68 million refugees and internally displaced persons; in the last year of the Obama administration, the U.S. admitted 85,000. By contrast, and from the start, the fact that millions and millions of pre-war Jews and Gentiles fit so well into the nation’s social and economic fabric was what (eventually) made them welcome as full members of the national family rather than just homeless persons needing shelter.

Second, what Americans have generally wanted for refugees is what actually happened after World War II: with American support from afar, they found new homes, happiness, and prosperity in their own lands. In time, all of those countries got on their feet—either anew, as in the case of Israel, or back again, as in the case of Europe. Their citizens are today considered some of the most fortunate in the world, and, more often than not, they are American allies.

Consider also: Israel, which absorbed millions of Jews not just after World War II but also following flights and expulsions from the Middle East and Russia, did not do so, despite what outsiders have sometimes thought or perceived, as an act of pure resettlement of helpless refugees. Rather, it did so to fulfill the long-held dreams and declared hopes of Jews throughout history, and to give the new nation some much-needed demographic and, increasingly, economic heft.

For Americans, the aim now should be to ensure that those admitted can find a full and fair place in their new American home.

Precisely because these immigrants were wanted by their fellow Jews for more reasons than just pity, many were able to build new lives fairly quickly. From that perspective, the flights to Israel of Middle Eastern and Russian Jews could serve, as well as or better than any other historical incident anywhere, as the prime example of the hybrid refugee/migrant phenomenon.

Those moved by histories like that of the Great Wave-era European Jews, or by the stories told by Robert Chazan, would thus best be served by a helping of the sort of rational thinking exemplified in Reihan Salam’s book. For Americans, the aim should be to ensure that those admitted can find a full and fair place in their new American home. It should also be to keep the number high, not by simplistic maximalization in any given year—which also puts maximum pressure on political support for immigration—but by seeking a long-term, sustainable consensus on the issue, even if that means adjustments to the current system.

This should be done in part for sound reasons of U.S. policy, but also because one never knows when or where disaster will strike in the outside world, and America, for all its faults, continues to be the last, best hope. At the same time, Americans must remain engaged with the outside world, mindful that, ultimately, the U.S. will have to help the overwhelming majority of refugees from afar even as it integrates millions in a New Great Wave at home.

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