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Redefining the immigration debate

The border area in Nogales, Arizona, Arizona is a symbol of the flaws in the US immigration system. Every day more than 1,000 undocumented migrants are sent to the US part of the city to be deported to Mexico.JOSE MUNOZ/EPA

In the country with the most immigrants in the world and where more than 14 percent of its residents are foreign born, hysteria shouldn’t trump common sense in the immigration debate. But too often it does. Today’s laws are a patchwork of political fixes that do very little to advance a broader policy. The current debate is defined by the height of a fence rather than the broader goals of a modern global economy. Yet against this backdrop of manifestly failed policies, many Republican leaders persist in justifying their opposition to reform on the grounds that those who get caught in the immigration web are such egregious lawbreakers that there must be no “amnesty” for such wrongdoing.

Populist conservatives who oppose immigration reform follow the logic of former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who points to his own family’s immigration from Italy in the mid-1920s as “the right way,” while pulling up the ladder for those who follow. This antiseptic view, where following the rules is the only standard, glorifies past policies that can only be described as racist. It self-righteously celebrates the virtues of anyone who got in before the gate closed, while demonizing those who tried not to get shut out.

The very purpose of the Immigration Act of 1924, the law that was in place precisely when Santorum’s grandfather Pietro was immigrating to America, was to restrict “undesirables” such as Jews and Italians from coming into the country. It’s chief author, Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania, said his intention was “keeping American stock up to the highest standard — that is, the people who were born here.”

American immigration policy would only worsen. One cruel example was the voyage of the St. Louis, after which nearly 1,000 Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi Germany were refused entry to the United States. As passengers stood on the deck glimpsing the lights of Miami, they were cabled by the State Department that they must await their turn on the waiting list in order to qualify for visas. And so they returned to Europe. Hundreds would be murdered in Nazi death camps.


In the case of Pietro Santorum, his journey from Riva, Italy, was truly improbable, since, under the strict quotas imposed by Reed’s bill during the period he was arriving, Italian immigration was decreasing by 98 percent. Indeed, some of today’s far-right birther types who question President Obama’s citizenship have also called Santorum’s legitimacy into question — claiming that his grandfather broke laws on his way to citizenship.

So what if he did? Is it any wonder that families struggling to survive would do anything in their power to arrive here? Among them was my father, whose own arrival was not strictly by the books.


Wracked with tuberculosis after having survived five years of Nazi death camps, he had a friend slide under the X-ray machine when his name was called. He also subtracted four years from his age, correctly thinking that his path to America would be made easier as a minor. Both offenses would have barred his entry, but together, they allowed him to dedicate his life to helping others instead — as a veteran, social worker, and the founder of the Holocaust memorial in downtown Boston.

The extent to which Republicans routinely seek political advantage by demonizing undocumented immigrants makes the recent comments by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush all the more remarkable. He declared — on Fox News, no less — that he understood the plight of undocumented immigrants who “crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”

Likely, he will be drummed out of his party’s presidential primaries unless he starts spitting venom like most of the others. And that’s too bad, because whether we want to acknowledge it or not, our proud, and sometimes complicated, history of becoming citizens is more than just a story of our families — it’s the story of America.


Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe opinion pages. Follow him on Twitter @MikeForBoston.