Clifton Jolley and Robert Rees

“Walls work.” – Donald Trump

“I was a stranger and you took me in.” – Jesus

Having celebrated Thanksgiving and continuing to be thankful for Christmas and Chanukah, it’s easy to be distracted by Cyber Monday gift getting and the lights on Union Square. It’s simpler to forget that 5,000 refugees (and counting) camp at our southern border. We may even choose to cheer ourselves that the daily 50 to 100 refugees being processed seems a reasonable number, given the risks to public safety posed by so many women and children. Besides, how is it possible to manage 5,000 people suffering in make-shift shelters?


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The answer is in our mixed history of either welcoming or standing guard against the immigrants who have built our cities and railroads, our bridges and buildings, who have dug our root vegetables and picked our apples and plums.

The answer is Ellis Island that for three quarters of a century—from the late 19th century through 1954—was the main port of entry for immigrants to America. Challenged by similar dangers—Communists from Russia and Eastern Europe, anarchists from the factories of Western Europe, polygamists from the Near East—the government created an ingenious set of questions to filter the terrorists from the refugees. They asked, “Are you a Communist?” “Are you an anarchist?” “How many wives do you have?”

Fewer than 2% were turned away. Most immigrants were processed and admitted in less than two hours, an average of more than 2,500 and as many as 5,000 were processed. A day. A “caravan” (if you insist) of poor, weary, and huddled masses—much like the 5,000 currently huddling in Tijuana—seeking, as had refugees before them, the “golden door” of freedom the Statue of Liberty once claimed to light.

But that was before Donald Trump became president, promoting his dark, nationalist obsession that walls are better than doors.

It’s tempting to blame our ignorant l’enfant terrible president. But Trump is merely the most recent evolution of nativist bigots who have captured and enlarged on popular fears of “the other.” The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law, the institution of literacy tests: all were designed to put out the light, to close the door…this time outside San Diego, prohibiting Hispanics fleeing anarchy and tyranny and poverty and worse. The dark underbelly of American immigration policy is that we were most willing to receive immigrants who were white Western Europeans. (No Hispanics. Few Muslims. Perhaps too many Jews…but according to Trump, we need accountants and money lenders.)

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Although Ellis Island processed its last immigrant in 1954, its demise began in 1921 with the nationalist Quota Laws, underscored in 1924 by passage of the National Origins Act, which was an early version of Trump’s effort to forbid Hispanics and Muslims, establishing a percentage system to preserve the majority the “old immigrants” from Northern and Western Europe.

In other words, people who look like Donald Trump. Except that an increasing number of Americans do not, and the recent mid-terms suggest the pendulum of power is swinging away from Trumpian tribalism.

But pendulums tend to swing slow, and the immigrants camped in Tijuana can’t wait on the evolution of our cultural appreciation and the growing power of those who once were minorities.

And besides: It’s Christmas. The light of Chanukah burns brightly, however limited the oil. Can’t we remember our better angels, when it was possible to process thousands rather than dozens of those seeking refuge in a land of such plenty as we have been blessed?

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Clifton Jolley is President of Advent Communications

Robert Rees teaches religion at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley

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