Taking on the “Boxcar” Crowd
In the Saturday (11/29/2014) New York Times story about the provenance of President Obama’s executive order on immigration, readers learned that House Speaker John Boehner faced opposition to comprehensive immigration legislation “from what Republican aides call the ‘boxcars crowd,’ a reference to conservative members who favor deportation for most of the 11 million” undocumented people in the country.
Absent from the story was any mention of shame, dismay, or denial by Mr. Boehner or the unnamed Republic aides that such a “boxcars crowd” exists within their caucus. Surely all the efforts to provide lessons about the Shoah should have produced a generation of Americans, whether Republican aides, electeds of either party, or fifth-graders in school, who know that the Nazi criminals used boxcars to “deport” the unwanted people from their midst.
It would be helpful to obtain a roster of the “boxcars crowd.” Certainly doing that work would be a worthy project for the reporting staffs of the major national newspapers. Better yet, it would be helpful to have a roster of the Republican leadership who condone the deportationists, just as it has become increasingly clear over time that the perpetrators of the Shoah included not only the criminal designers of the murder program but also the people who remained silent or were complicit as its evil work went forward.
There may be some in the “boxcars crowd” who have studied the Nazi legal system and who would contend the Hitler regime only deported people who were not citizens, most having been stripped of German citizenship prior to other crimes having been perpetrated against them. This argument would qualify as defining a distinction without a difference. It would also cause concern if anyone in the “boxcars crowd” had made a serious study of the Nazi legal system.
I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the “boxcars crowd,” once named, would closely resemble the late 19th century populists the historian Richard Hofstadter had in mind when he wrote about the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” nearly a half century ago. Those who practiced the “paranoid style” of politics tended to nativists, racists, biblical literalists, and—no big surprise—bigoted against Jews. Except for the biblical literalism, much the same could be said for early 20th century progressives who made common cause with the populists to bring us such failures of coalitional politics as the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan limiting immigration from that country, the National Origins Act which virtually ended European immigration to the US in the 1920s and 1930s—with horrific consequences for Jews seeking escape from Nazism but finding the US closed to most of them—Prohibition, quotas limiting Jewish enrollment in private colleges, and restrictive covenants prohibiting Jews from living anywhere we wished.
The deportationist “boxcars crowd” should remind us that not only the Exodus lesson (“for you were a stranger in Egypt”) but also our experience and interests in the US compel us to have a very tender approach to those treated as the other, as people of inferior status.
Images reminiscent of the Shoah are not new to the issue of US enforcement of immigration laws. In 1979, late in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) allied with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to sue the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) because of the so-called “factory surveys” used by the INS to discover and deport illegal immigrants. What struck the AJC leaders at the time was the way in which INS officers would enter a garment factory, block the exits, then march down the aisles of operatives, making a “selection” of those who looked like undocumented persons. (Disclosure: I was a very junior member of the AJC staff who worked on this matter.)
US District Court Judge Laughlin Waters rejected a plea for injunctive relief; an appeal to the 9th Circuit was successful, but the Supreme Court of the US upheld the INS’s methods. AJC friend of the court briefs attempted to explain the civil rights aspect of the case. Similar arguments from MALDEF were equally unavailing. Perhaps the limitation of the civil rights coalition in this case to AJC and MALDEF, while perhaps advancing further cooperation between Jews and Mexican-Americans, was too narrow to convince the Justices that a genuine civil rights problem was involved. When I used this case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1984 as INS v Delgado, for lessons at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, some students wondered if the outcome would have been different if organizations like the Urban League, Japanese American Citizens League, and Korean American Coalition had joined the AJC briefs.
Amicus briefs rarely influence appellate courts, but they do provide a mechanism for like-minded organizations to make common cause on important issues. Just as the “boxcars crowd” represents a coalition whose attitude to the “other” has sought deportation as its favored solution, so should the leaders of Jewish public affairs organizations—now a much more numerous group than when AJC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Community Relations Committee of the local Jewish Federation ruled the day—join with those who are like us, “others,” and at peril from the “boxcars crowd.”
Neil Kramer is Dean of Faculty Emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California