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  • Not-quite-closed Gates:Jewish Alien Smuggling in the Post-Quota Years
  • Libby Garland (bio)

On February 11, 1928, the S.S. Iroquois had just completed the short voyage from Havana to Miami when U.S. immigration inspectors detained one of the ship's Jewish passengers. This traveler's documents identified him as thirty-two-year-old Sam Weisstein, born in Poland but now a naturalized citizen of the United States. The inspectors found it suspicious, however, that Weisstein could not explain how he had obtained his papers. After close interrogation, the man confessed that he was not Weisstein but Chaim Josef Listopad, a Jewish carpenter born in Mlawa, Poland. Listopad was not a U.S. citizen and had never even been to the United States. He had bought the papers in Havana just two weeks earlier, paying fifty dollars to a Jewish stranger wearing a white tropical suit and straw hat. Listopad might not have made this purchase had he known that the Immigration Bureau in Washington, D.C., already had a thick file on the real Samuel Weisstein, whom they had long suspected of smuggling Jews from Warsaw to the United States for profit.1

In 1921 and 1924, the U.S. Congress passed radically nativist legislation decreeing that most immigration would henceforth be strictly limited according to nation-based quotas. The controversial new laws drastically reduced the number of Europeans allowed to enter the United States legally, especially from southern and eastern Europe, and made permanent an already existing near-total ban on Asian immigration. Consequently, these laws fueled a brisk business in illicit immigration, a phenomenon that has gone largely unexamined in scholarship on the era.2 Eastern European Jews, many of whom were desperate to escape ongoing postwar economic and political crises and join relatives in the [End Page 197] United States, proved an especially lucrative market. More than a decade's worth of records at the National Archives in Washington testify to the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between the U.S. government and Samuel Weisstein, as well as scores of his colleagues, who were busy during the post-quota years forging papers and smuggling Jewish immigrants through Warsaw, Breslau, Berlin, Paris, Antwerp, Montreal, Havana, Nassau, and Ciudad Juárez.

This article explores the international underworld of Jewish alien smuggling that burgeoned after Congress passed the restrictive immigration legislation of 1921 and 1924. A close look at the Jewish smugglers of the era, and at the experiences of those they smuggled, forces us to reconsider and refine a central narrative of twentieth-century American and Jewish history, a narrative we might call the story of the "closing of the gates" to European immigrants. The complex history of alien smuggling makes it clear that the "gates" did not simply close, and that the effects of the quota laws were not as straightforward as historians have tended to imagine. Although the new legislation did indeed rewrite the rules governing the nation's borders, it did not prove simple to implement. The history of alien smuggling in the era of immigration quotas helps reveal the extent to which the reordering of the nation's boundaries happened unevenly, confusedly, and with much contention.

The quota laws have long served as a dramatic dividing line in the historiography of European ethnics in the United States. The passage of the permanent quota law in 1924 has been seen as the end of the great epic of European mass immigration, inaugurating a time when European ethnics were cut off from homeland cultures and increasingly concerned with their relationship to the nation around them. Historians writing about the post-1924 period have often focused on European ethnics in their American context, as workers, voters, and consumers coming to identify more fully with a national—and white—culture.3 For the most [End Page 198] part, the literature of American Jewish history follows this pattern, taking up the question of immigration and immigration policy again only in connection to how these became matters of public concern after Hitler came to power in 1933.4

In part, the use of the quota laws as a historiographical boundary lines reflect the demands of the...


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