Open Borders: The Once and Future Immigration Policy

A century ago, the U.S.’s open border policy was a lifeline to persecuted European Jews. Open borders have saved lives before and can again.

Immigration has been in the headlines throughout the Trump presidency, with so many attacks on immigrants and immigration that it’s difficult to see past defensive fights. But socialists know it’s not enough, as Joe Biden suggests, to go back to the status quo of immigration before Donald Trump. One historical example that gives some insight into a radically different immigration policy is that of Jewish immigration.

In 2006, the year that saw millions of immigrant workers and supporters take to the streets on May Day, billed “A Day Without Immigrants,” the main debate within the movement was between a left wing that demanded amnesty for all 12 million undocumented immigrants, full stop, and a moderate wing that supported “comprehensive immigration reform,” conceding increased enforcement and border wall construction in order to win a path to legalization. More recently, the demand for open borders has emerged, with the recognition that legalization for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. will not help those needing to migrate to the U.S. in the future.

The call for open borders can sound like a utopian dream, but it was the reality in the U.S. for much of its history. Until 1875, the U.S. did effectively have open borders. That year, the Page Act barred the immigration of Chinese women. It was followed seven years later by the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting the entry of Chinese men as well. The 1917 Immigration Act implemented basic literacy requirements for immigration and further excluded a larger Asiatic Barred Zone. The 1924 Immigration Act established quotas for future immigration at 3% of 1910 foreign-born populations, later amended to 2% of 1890 populations.

The case of Jewish immigration illustrates well the impact of the 1924 quotas on would-be asylum seekers. Between 1880 and 1914, approximately 2 million Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S. They came mostly from the Pale of Settlement, Tsarist Russia’s designated legal area for Jewish settlement corresponding with modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and parts of Latvia and Poland.  In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by members of Narodnaya Volya, “The People’s Will,” a revolutionary organization that glorified individual acts of terror. While most of the the Narodniks involved in the plot were hanged, Hesya Helfman, born to a Jewish family was spared because she was pregnant, and sentenced to hard labor.  She died the next year due to postnatal complications. Perhaps because of Helfand’s Jewish background or perhaps because of a general association between revolutionaries and Jews, the assassination sparked a wave of pogroms, a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc.” In some cases Jews were officially blamed for political acts and in other cases there was assumed official support for popular waves of anti-Semitism.  Between 1881 and 1920, an estimated 70,000-250,000 Jews were killed in 1,326 pogroms in the Ukraine.

It is safe to say the the U.S.’s open border policy at this time saved countless lives by allowing 2 million Jews to escape pogroms. This is in stark contrast to Jewish immigration during the Holocaust after the 1924 restrictive quotas were implemented.

The 1924 quotas limited immigration from Germany to 24,957. When Hitler came to power in 1933, 82,787 Germans, mostly Jews, were on the waiting list to be admitted to the US, but the State Department only issued 1,241 visas. Not only was the quota severely insufficient, but it was less than five percent filled. Germany’s 525,000 Jews comprised only one percent of the population at the time. By 1933, there were already 27,000 prisoners in concentration camps, book burnings of Jewish, communist, liberal, and foreign authors, and liquidation of Jewish businesses.

Germany annexed Austria in 1938, bringing terror to Austrian Jews. President Roosevelt responded by combining the Germand and Austrian quotas, limiting total immigration to 27,370. 1939 was the first year that the US filled its Germany immigration quota, but ten times that many remained on the waiting list. 

Also in 1939, 937 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees, sailed from Germany to Cuba on the St. Louis. Most had or were waiting for U.S. visas and were only planning to stay in Cuba until they could get to the U.S. Only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana; the rest were forced to return to Europe, but not before sailing close enough to see Miami where some cabled President Roosevelt, who never returned their messages. In the end, 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust.

 In 1941, Germany ordered U.S. consulates closed and only those who had already escaped the country could obtain U.S. visas.  The rest remained trapped. We can only imagine how many Jews would have been saved from the gas chambers if the U.S. had continued its open border policy.

Even after the war ended, U.S. immigration policy did not respond to the needs of the 3.5 million Jews still remaining in Europe. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed 200,000 refugees into the U.S., but discriminated against Jews, particularly those in Eastern Europe as of 1945. This policy forced many Eastern European Jews to choose between remaining in their homes where they faced increased anti-Semitism, and immigrating to Israel, creating a justification for a Zionist settler-colonial state.

Bernie Sanders is perhaps the most well-known Jewish public figure in the U.S. today. A detailed genealogy of Sanders’s family can be found here, here, and here. Sanders’s father, Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders, immigrated to the U.S. in 1921 as a teenager from a town called Słopnice, then in Austria-Hungary, now in Poland. In 1921, Elias Sanders would have been able to enter the U.S. without a visa. He arrived with one brother, leaving another brother and sister behind in Słopnice. It is assumed that they perished in the Holocaust. We have no record of if or when either attempted to escape German-occupied Europe. If they considered it when it was still a possibility, they likely knew that the rest of the world, the U.S. included, would try to turn them away.

Given his family background and his radical politics in other arenas, one might wonder whether Bernie Sanders supports open borders. He does not, arguing instead, “If you open the borders, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.” Sanders’s words sound all too much like Ken Cucinelli’s rewriting of “The New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and your poor—who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” 

On the Immigration Reform section on Sanders’s campaign website, the first bullet point is about comprehensive immigration reform. Though his platform in its current form is sparse and does not mention enforcement, comprehensive immigration reform in 21st-century U.S. politics has always meant the combination of increased border enforcement and legalization of undocumented immigrants. Some of his policies are vague and difficult to interpret. For instance, it’s difficult to know what it would look like to “Completely reshape and reform our immigration enforcement system.” Other prongs of his program are thoroughly positive and should be uncontroversial for socialists: reinstating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), enacting Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents  (DAPA), ending family separation, shutting down detention centers, and more oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). All of these policies impact only immigrants already in the U.S., saying nothing about those waiting in Mexico, the general question of asylum seekers, or the US’s responsibility to people around the world whose homes have been made unsafe because of imperialism, neoliberalism, and climate change.

None of this is to say that the shortcomings in Sanders’s immigration policy should stop democratic socialists from supporting him. Indeed, we can both enthusiastically support his candidacy while critiquing his flaws and pushing him to do better, as Daniel Denvir does when he says, “Bernie doesn’t need to come out for ‘open borders.’ I support open borders and the unfettered transnational free movement of people, but I don’t think it should be a litmus test for our support. (I also support worker control of the means of production but don’t think that Bernie should call for that — not yet, anyway.) We should demand that Bernie speak clearly in favor of demilitarizing and making the border more open so as to radically increase the government’s respect for the human right to mobility.”

The point is that open borders have saved lives before and can again. Open borders may be an aspirational demand at the moment, but one to be actively aspired toward and not shunned.