In the final months of his life, my father talked of growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s when letters kept arriving from relatives desperate to leave Europe for a safe America.

“Letters saying, ‘Please get me out,’” my father said. “And you feel helpless because what can you do? But sometimes papers were gotten, and some of the family managed to get out. And my father and I would take the ferry out to Ellis Island to pick them up, and …”

And here my father’s voice broke. He remembered the crowds at Ellis Island, and the bedlam, and people shrieking, “Look how he looks,” as they embraced relatives whose lives had miraculously been saved.

“And I remember they kept touching them,” my father said. “They kept touching them, as though to make sure they really were there.”

On our television screens the weekend Donald Trump announced his temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries, and his permanent ban on the desperate cast-asides of war-ravaged Syria, I kept seeing images at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York that might have arrived from my father’s indelible memories of the ‘30s.

Those frantic arrivals might have been my Jewish relatives, or yours, the way they kept touching each other and holding onto each other — as though making sure they really were there.

Do we learn nothing from the past?

Donald Trump says we need a ban that looks dangerously like a religious restriction. He says this in the name of national security, though there have been no known terrorist attacks from natives of any of those countries.

He says America needs tougher vetting before allowing these people in — even though current vetting practices already last anywhere from 18 months to two years.

He says this despite many in America still treasuring a national impulse that takes in the world’s wanderers for reasons of morality — and, not to be minimized, because it benefits our own nation.

He argues with the leader of Australia because Trump wishes to resist taking in refugees the Australians have been holding under an agreement with Barack Obama. Trump calls these people “illegal immigrants.”

They are not. They are people fleeing war, frantic to stay alive — and for more than three years, they’ve been marooned in appalling conditions on two South Pacific islands.

Do we learn nothing from the past?

Last September, the National Academy of Sciences issued a 509-page report called “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration.” It said America takes in immigrants not only from some romantic notions of helping human beings in trouble but in national self-interest as well.

“On the fringes of the immigration debate, you have Donald Trump and his small band of nativists peddling fears and falsehoods,” it stated. “For those of us who inhabit a fact-driven reality, you have a growing body of credible research demonstrating the benefits of immigrants and the burdens of following Trump’s radical proposals.

“Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the U.S. avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated. … The infusion of human capital by high-skilled immigrants has boosted the nation’s capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship and technological change.”

Do we learn nothing from the past?

In my father’s time, there were 220,000 applications for visas at U.S. consulates in Germany in the days after Kristallnacht. But America’s annual quota for German immigrants in 1938 was only 27,000.

And as Hitler began his murderous roundups, even that quota wasn’t filled. Only 18,000 were allowed here from Germany.

We have a president who would reduce modern immigration quotas to zero — but only for certain kinds of people. In the post-9/11 world, he plays on our fears, creates “alternative facts,” closes America’s doors — and its heart.

Our new president chooses to learn nothing from the past.

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

 

 

 

More In News

All In News »