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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, March 4, 2024

It's Happened Before: The battle for America's soul


In 1892, an immigrant from the Russian Empire stepped off a ship into the bustling city of Boston with nothing but the clothes on his back. He did not come to the country by choice: Indeed, when he was younger, he did not imagine that he would ever leave his village, much less Europe. The situation in Russia had changed, however, and those of his Jewish faith faced increasing violence and attacks by mobs, while the state hardly lifted a finger to stop them. In the United States, he worked hard and brought his family still in Russia over, one by one. It was a good thing too: If they had remained, they would in all likelihood have been murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. The U.S. saved his life, and the life of his family. It also saved the life of his unborn descendants, who came to prosper in a way inconceivable in the “old country.” That man’s last name was Berlin — he was my great-great-great-grandfather.

My family’s story is not unique. Many American families can similarly trace their roots in this country to escape, whether from violence, poverty or oppression. However, despite the ubiquity of immigration in American society, there is also deep-seated opposition to it. At times, this opposition has won out. In 1924, immigration by “undesirables” like Jews, Asians and Africans was severely curtailed. In the 1930s and ‘40s, tens of thousands of German and Polish Jews were denied visas: even Jews departing from Nazi Germany to seek asylum were returned to Europe, where some were subsequently killed in the Holocaust. As recently as this decade, former President Donald Trump slashed the cap on refugee admissions from 85,000 in 2016 to a paltry 15,000 in 2020. 

This, despite the fact that Trump’s own grandfather, Friedrich Trump, came to this country to escape the German draft? Across its history, including before its actual founding, the United States has served as a haven for English Puritans fleeing religious persecution, Irish leaving behind famine, Jews evading pogroms and Afghanis escaping from the Taliban. Nevertheless, Americans are consistently hostile to new immigrants — despite descending, in large part, from immigrants themselves. Truly, this is the pot — or shall I say the melting pot — calling the kettle black. 

Looking back, it is easy to forget that history is unfinished. The present and the future will inevitably be annexed to the past, studied by future generations as we now study past ones. Hopefully, the future history of our country is a long one — it’s up to us. Will future generations continue to tell immigration stories? Will future immigrants see the Statue of Liberty, or the wall? Will we continue to be a country of the world, or just another of many in it? That is our choice. For the sake of past generations of Americans, and for future ones, let’s make the right one.