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  • Fighting to be Insiders: American Jewish Leaders and the Michigan Alien Registration Law of 1931
  • Libby Garland (bio)

On May 18, 1931, Michigan’s legislature passed an unprecedented law. This law required all aliens—meaning all unnaturalized foreigners—living in Michigan to register with the state government. They had to get fingerprinted and photographed, and acquire official “certificates of legal residence” verifying their lawful entry into the country. Any alien without such a certificate was henceforward barred from conducting business or obtaining employment in Michigan, and even from entering the state. Employers had to demand these certificates and report any alien who could not produce one. Police officers were required to arrest aliens lacking certificates and hand them over to the United States Bureau of Immigration. Finally, the new legislation decreed that aliens who had entered the United States illegally or were “‘undesirable alien[s]’ as defined by the laws of the United States” were ineligible to register in Michigan and thus subject to deportation.1

The law, which had been quietly rushed through the legislature, unleashed a storm of controversy. Those in favor of the measure, including top lawmakers, labor organizers, government officials, and industrialists in the state, insisted that registering aliens would protect everyone—citizens and aliens alike—by identifying immigrants unlawfully in the United States. They argued that these immigrants were taking jobs away from deserving citizens, fomenting political and labor unrest, and committing a disproportionate number of crimes. On the other side of the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and various ethnic organizations, including a broad range of national and local Jewish groups, joined together in vigorously decrying the bill as antiforeigner, unnecessary, and decisively un-American. A group of prominent lawyers [End Page 109] organized quickly to file a case against the state of Michigan in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. In New Jersey and California, among other states, legislators who were prepared to pass their own such laws waited to see what would happen.2

The issue of alien registration, largely passed over by historians, constitutes a crucial window into the highly charged politics of foreignness in the 1920s and 1930s.3 Throughout this period, “patriotic” organizations, anti-immigration lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures, the nativist press, and, at times, organized labor, pushed hard for legislation similar to the 1931 Michigan law. The government had previously demanded such documentation only from Chinese immigrants, who were widely regarded with racist suspicion and had been almost completely barred from coming to the United States since 1882, and from those classified as “enemy aliens” during World War I.4 Thus, the stakes in the heated controversy over instituting a general alien registration were [End Page 110] high. Focused as it was on what separated insiders from outsiders, the debate about alien registration was a referendum not only on the status of foreigners illegally in the country, but also on the status of all foreign born individuals—aliens and citizens—and on that of ethnic groups more broadly. As the controversy surrounding the registration law unfolded, it raised vexing questions about who belonged, who represented dangerous elements in the national polity, and whether the government would, or should, differentiate among illegal aliens, legal aliens, naturalized citizens, and native-born citizens.

American Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the battle against alien registration throughout this era. The same editors, rabbis, lawyers, politicians, and activists who advocated so intensively on behalf of immigrants more generally also fought fiercely against registration legislation, denouncing such measures in Yiddish- and English-language newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, protest meetings, congressional hearings, and private correspondence. Though often divided by politics, culture, and language, Jews from across the social spectrum agreed that registration threatened to erode the liberties not only of immigrants and ethnic communities but of the citizenry as a whole.5 In Michigan in 1931, local and national Jewish leaders spearheaded the effort to bring a case to federal court in Michigan’s Eastern District in order to challenge the state’s new law on a constitutional basis. They deployed their substantial expertise in civil liberties activism to make...


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pp. 109-140
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