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  • After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921–1965 by Libby Garland
  • Ronald H. Bayor (bio)
After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921–1965. By Libby Garland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. x + 288 pp.

Concerns over secure borders and illegal immigrants evoke much discussion, controversy, and passionate opinions in contemporary America. Mexican and Central American migrants stand at the center of the issue. However, Libby Garland’s focus in this well-researched and thought-provoking book is Jewish undocumented immigrants, who also induced anxiety about America’s future by entering the United States illegally during the quota law years. [End Page 197]

Beginning with a fine historical rendition of the immigration laws as the federal government asserted control of migration, the author proceeds to discuss the Jewish response to the laws up to and including the discriminatory 1924 immigration quota act. Then as now, the U.S. experienced permeable borders. Jewish organizations such as HIAS, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, and others, as well as individual rabbis, found themselves in the middle of the undocumented controversy: desiring to have the immigrants come to the United States but not wanting to violate any immigration laws and bring attention to the Jewish illegals. Differences also existed among these groups about how to interpret the quota laws.

Controversies over understanding the terms of the quota laws, lack of Jewish organizational coordination in opposing the legislation, and the nativism evident in the U.S. at this time forced many Jewish immigrants to create alternative entry strategies. The author provides the immigrants’ personal stories to illustrate and enliven her discussion. Earlier illegal tactics to secure entry expanded from pre-quota days and included crossing from Mexico or Canada into the U.S. or arriving from Cuba. Jewish immigrants, like many others from Europe or elsewhere, turned to bribery, smugglers, fake papers, stowing away, overstaying visitor visas and other strategies for illegal admission. When the 1921 and 1924 quotas became permanent, Jews stranded at European ports, even with visas in hand, or those still wanting to make the journey, had to find other than legal ways to enter.

Along with the illegal liquor traffic during these days of Prohibition, illegal immigration became a money-making enterprise. Steamship companies travelling to Mexico, foreign government agents issuing false passports or visas, lawyers providing documents indicating an earlier legal entry and thus an authorized reentry, and the immigrant’s family offering information on tactics to evade the laws all were complicit in the undocumented trade. Forged papers furthermore allowed these immigrants to apply eventually for citizenship. These various methods derived from and encouraged illegal immigrants from other groups, especially the Chinese. Similar ploys are still evident today, including dressing and speaking in a way to indicate American identity.

Jewish organizations did work diligently to change the quota laws, many aspects of which confused even those immigrating legally. These same associations tried to improve conditions for migrants in Europe and sought other locales such as Cuba for the immigrants to enter legally. Later the Jewish associations became integral players in securing the Displaced Persons Act, various refugee laws, and new immigration provisions leading up to the end of quotas with the 1965 Immigration Act. [End Page 198]

Jewish and other groups representing immigrants also worked assiduously to secure the repeal of an Alien Registration Law passed in Michigan in 1931. The author covers this legislation in great detail, revealing the fervent hostility to illegal immigrants and unnaturalized Americans during this era. Then, as now, a state’s attempt to control immigration matters in lieu of the federal government represented a usurpation of federal control over immigration during a time of intense controversy over illegals and immigration policy. As Garland explains, the legislation also indicated the public’s reluctance to consider even white immigrants as part of the nation.

Few Americans today remember the times when Jews constituted part of the undocumented issue. This book therefore makes a major contribution in educating contemporary Americans of various ethnic backgrounds, whose ancestors often faced a label as unassimilable and undesirable, that those now...