June 26, 2019

Immigrant nation

When you emerge from the Berlin subway into the Hermannplatz neighborhood, you enter Turkey.  Food stalls offer fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, sesame-encrusted simit and flakey boreks oozing sheep’s milk cheeses.  The language spoken on the street, the signs, the music from storefront boom boxes—all Turkish

I visited Hermannplatz on Nov. 8, as the rest of Berlin was immersed in a weekend of  celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were no signs of that momentous occasion, no posters, no balloons, nothing to mark the historic day that forged a free, modern Germany. I asked a native Berliner, “Why is that?”

“It’s not their Berlin,” she said. “It has nothing to do with them.”

Those words resonated with me again this week, as President Barack Obama wielded his executive authority to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

With the stroke of a pen, Obama set in motion a process that could ultimately move 5 million people, as he put it, to “come out of the shadows.” 

It was a huge, bold move, and it has generated an equal and opposite reaction.

Some critics say they are more upset at the way Obama made policy than at the policy itself.  Some fear that granting amnesty will reward or increase lawlessness. And some just fear Obama and anything he does.

I like the reaction of the Jewish group Bend the Arc, which tweeted, “Pop the Manischewitz! This is a big deal!”

What Obama did is legal—at least according to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. It was also, as the Republican Jewish Coalition accused it of being, brazen and destabilizing. But it seems Obama has learned one lesson from the Middle East—things don’t get better on their own; the status quo is nobody’s friend.

So the President acted.  Once the high drama surrounding someone actually doing something in Washington subsides, it will be interesting to see the effect Obama’s decision will have on the ground.  Because, let’s face it, while we may be consumed by the Middle East, the lives of the people we live among, those who watch our children, cook our food, clean our homes and tend our yards have a much more immediate impact on us.   If they are treated with something approaching humanity; if they are given a chance, even a carefully circumscribed chance, of gaining a toehold to a better life, I suspect they will repay society with interest, in hard work, in the lives of their ambitious children, in gratitude.

How can I be sure? Because with the exception of the Native Americans, we’ve all been there. Two generations ago, my great-grandparents, the Eshmans, Peshkins and Vogels, found refuge here from the czar’s army.  Official records list them as cigar rollers and meat cutters—but they were likely padding their resumes. They came with no more skills or promise than the immigrants from Guatemala City or Nuevo Laredo.  Had today’s immigration laws been in effect back then, they’d have been sent back to Pinsk to perish (you can go to entrydenied.org to find out whether your ancestors would have been allowed in, too).  With a wave of his pen, Obama has written a new chapter in this very American story.

It’s strange even to be having this argument during Thanksgiving—a holiday that celebrates the way immigrants to this strange land were embraced by its inhabitants. The reason Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday, marked in almost every home, from Orthodox Jews to Confucian Chinese, is because we are all acknowledging the same thing: our good fortune to have found a place that embraces us, and makes us Americans.

Europe, from Germany to Paris to London, faces a crisis because it has not figured out how to make Germans, French and Englishmen out of swelling, alienated immigrant populations.

That is not just a waste of human potential, it is a security crisis. On Nov. 6, just two days before I visited Hermannplatz, a SWAT team burst into four apartments nearby and arrested four Turkish residents for allegedly supporting the ISIS group.  If you can’t deport millions—and you can’t—then you have to find a way to embrace them and their potential for contributing to society. People who see no chance of becoming part of their host country are more likely to turn on their host country. What could be a cure becomes a cancer.

What Obama did should only be the first step in making hard-working immigrants feel like the American story has everything to do with them. Because it does.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.