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Opinion | Alan M. Dershowitz

Immigrants who change America are its lifeblood

Stallone Laurel Dias holds naturalization documents and an American flag during a naturalization ceremony on July 18, 2018 in Boston.
Stallone Laurel Dias holds naturalization documents and an American flag during a naturalization ceremony on July 18, 2018 in Boston.Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Laura Ingraham’s attack on illegal, and in some cases legal, immigration harks back to a time when my forbearers and hers immigrated to this great country, and were accused of changing it for the worse.

Here is what Ingraham said:

“[In] some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American People. They’re changes none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like. . . . Both illegal and in some cases legal immigration, which, of course, progressives love.”

When my Jewish-Polish grandparents came to America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, many white Protestants whose forebears had been here for generations complained that these “different” immigrants were turning America into a country we don’t “know and love.” To be sure, my grandparents were different. They spoke a different language. They looked a little bit different. They were poor. They were uneducated in the ways of America. They worshiped differently. And they voted Democrat. But despite these differences, or even because of them, they, and their fellow Eastern European immigrants, loved America, and they and their descendants contributed greatly to our nation’s success in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Ingraham’s forbearers came from Poland and Ireland. The anti-Polish and anti-Irish sentiments in this country were widespread. Discrimination against Polish and Irish immigrants was pervasive. Yet their descendants, too, have contributed significantly to the success of this great country.


I went to Brooklyn College, a free public university, where virtually all of my classmates were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Like my brother and me, most were the first in their family to attend college. Even when I graduated first in my class from Yale Law School, and was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal, and a future Supreme Court law clerk, I was turned down for a job by 32 out of the 32 Wall Street firms to which I applied. So were some of my Irish and Polish classmates. These firms wanted white Protestants of British and German stock, who they regarded as “the real Americans.” We had to go to work for smaller law firms that were open to the children and grandchildren of immigrants.


Now some of these same descendants of immigrants — like Laura Ingraham, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon — are trying to close the door to broad legal immigration because they don’t like how the current immigrants look, speak, vote, and raise their families. It reminds me of the Russian immigrant comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who had a humorous bit in which he would be standing in front of the Statue of Liberty thanking her for welcoming him to this great country, and then, as he was leaving, he turned back to Ms. Liberty and shouted, “Now please keep the rest of those damn immigrants out.”

Nor would “merit” immigration assure us the kinds of immigrants who would contribute significantly to our country. It is impossible to judge the future merits of potential immigrants who are deprived of educational and other opportunities. Previous immigrants who have changed the country for the better would never have passed any so-called merit test. Many came from what President Trump would regard as “shithole” countries. When my grandparents came here, all of Eastern Europe was characterized that way, and look at what these immigrants have contributed to our country.

It is a cliché to say that we are a nation of immigrants, but the cliché is so true. Every year, The New York Times runs a full page that shows the faces and contributions of immigrants to America. They have contributed to medicine, technology, economics, literature, law, philanthropy, and so much else. It is hard to imagine an America without immigrants who look, speak, and think differently than the original American colonists.


It is reasonable to try to control our borders against massive illegal immigration, even despite the reality that illegal immigrants, too, have contributed to America. My own grandfather illegally secured false affidavits from neighbors in order to rescue 29 of our relatives from the Holocaust. He got these neighbors to sign false affidavits about their need for religious functionaries in non-existent basement synagogues. Though himself a lawful man, and a grateful immigrant, he was willing to break the law to save lives. One of those he saved became the chairman of the engineering department of Columbia University. Another became a prominent rabbi in Los Angeles. Their children and grandchildren continue to contribute greatly to the economy and culture of this diverse country.

This is not intended to justify lawlessness and illegal immigration, except in the most extreme cases like the Holocaust, when racist barriers to immigration precluded Jews from escaping Hitler’s gas chambers. But it is to respond to Ingraham’s point that “both illegal, and in some cases, legal immigration” have changed our country. Yes, immigration has changed our country, mostly for the better. To be sure, some illegal immigrants, and even some legal immigrants, do not contribute to our country. But that is true as well of Mayflower descendants (our first immigrants).


So please, Laura Ingraham, be more tolerant of differences — even lack of “merit,” as some would define it — that immigrants bring to this country. You are I are both the product of these differences.

Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus of law at Harvard Law School and author of “The Case Against Impeaching Trump.”