Once, the U.S. Fought to Take In Refugees Like Me
Protestors demonstrating for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union, New York City, 1984
Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images
Six or seven years after my parents and I arrived as refugees from the Soviet Union — I was about twelve years old, so it would have been the early 1980s — my father received a letter from a close friend, asking for the manual to a U.S.-made minicomputer. The friend had clearly been put up to it, given a less-than-kind nudge by the KGB, or perhaps his boss. I recall that unanswered letter as the breaking of one of the last active links we had to Russia.
It’s likely that other immigrants from Russia received similar letters. For the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish refugees like us, fleeing religious and political persecution, the reaction would have been the same. It is hard to imagine any of them jeopardizing the life they were building here to help a regime that hated them. The U.S., as a matter of policy, had made clear that we were unequivocally accepted in this country — that our presence here was not only a favor, but an advantage to the United States.
Julia Ioffe has written eloquently about what Russian Jews faced in the Soviet Union, the sacrifices they made to leave their former lives behind, and the gratitude they felt to be accepted here. I will second all that. My parents took enormous risks in choosing to come to the United States in 1976, not least that they would not be allowed out, would lose their jobs, be followed by the KGB, and be left for years in “refusenik” limbo. They took great risks, and they also felt great hope and relief, largely on my behalf.
Despite this hope, the position of Russian Jews in America, like that of all refugees, was fraught. Governments want guarantees that there will be no traitors mixed in, and many people — then and now — look at the whole lot with suspicion. Richard Nixon had no use for refugees (or for Jews in general, but that’s another matter). In the Reagan era the very same Russian Jews who were welcomed across the border were later, like my father, denied security clearances to work in the burgeoning defense economy. Certainly even then plenty of Americans saw refugees as a potential fifth column in the war with communism.
Still the United States let us in, thanks to a mixture of humanitarian and geopolitical motives that were closely entwined. One of the peculiarities of the Soviet regime that it was that it was impossible to leave the Soviet bloc. Citizens of the Soviet Union were captives. To get abroad it was not enough merely to gain entry somewhere else; it required gaining the government’s permission to leave. For most of two decades, the United States ceaselessly pummeled the Soviet Union to grant Jews that right of exit.
Perhaps not all the methods the United States used were effective. The Soviets sometimes seem to have cut immigration in response to pressure. On balance, though, the United States rescued hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union, and — this is key — in doing so reminded the world that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc states were countries people wanted to leave but couldn’t, while the United States was a country they wanted to come to. The Russian Jewish refugees of the 1970s and 1980s were living evidence of the moral superiority of the United States.
Over the past months I had wondered how Donald Trump could so carelessly jeopardize the moral standing that had been a touchstone of American foreign policy for decades. In the last days, though, as refugees got turned away at the border and green card holders found themselves terrified to leave the country lest they not be allowed back, it finally occurred to me that the administration was not just carelessly throwing away the advantages of U.S. moral superiority. The baroque cruelties of the new immigration policy are a sign that the administration is intentionally abandoning the special position of the United States.
It’s a strong charge. But the harshest interpretation of the ban, upending the lives of permanent residents, was pushed by the president’s political advisor, Stephen Bannon, with clear insight into how it would be received. This was not merely carelessness, it was a message to immigrants, to potential immigrants, and to everyone else who looked to the United States for guidance.
The message is: You have been a burden. You are on your own. Solve your own problems. That signal is very much in tune with the slogan ‘America First,’ taken from an isolationist movement that was infected with antisemitism in a period when many Americans were ready to condemn German Jews to the concentration camps.
The U.S. demanded a great deal of the refugees it let in, and sometimes viewed them (meaning: us) with suspicion. We knew that we were here thanks to the generosity of most Americans, and despite the misgivings of some. Ultimately the U.S. got something valuable back: Letting in Russian Jews like me and my parents told the world that those who lived under repressive regimes should look to the United States for leadership. It was a key feature of the U.S. brand, a reason for the world to choose us over our enemies.
Now Trump and his advisers have decided it’s not worth paying for the upkeep of that brand, calculating that there is no percentage in looking like the good guy. As you let that sink in, it starts to feel like showing up at the airport and being told that you won’t be allowed on your plane. At first it seems like it has to be the result of some confusion that will soon be cleared up. And then you start to understand no, it’s not a misunderstanding at all. It’s what half the country voted for.
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