Out in New York Harbor in 1903, the bronze plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” was affixed to the Statue of Liberty. It’s the one that begins: “Give me your tired, your poor…” Her poem went on to welcome 5,000 to 10,000 immigrants every day between 1900 and 1914. About 40 percent of Americans are now descended from someone who came through Ellis Island. My great-grandfather was one of them.
His name was Avram. The year the plaque was being installed inside the Statue of Liberty, Avram was living in a place called Bessarabia, then part of tsarist Russia, now mostly in Moldova. Pogroms were ravaging cities across the region. That year, Avram and his wife, Dora, set sail with their son, my grandfather Joseph, aged four.
The family settled on New York’s Lower East Side, where Avram learned English but spoke his native Yiddish at home, reading a Yiddish-language newspaper each night. He didn’t arrive with much money; he did piecework making zippers for a while and went on to become very active in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union — a feminist labor organizer ahead of his time. He spent the rest of his life in America, dying in Brooklyn in 1954.
Yet under a new presidential determination from the White House, future Avrams may never have the chance to come to the United States. According to both international and U.S. refugee law, people like my great-grandfather have for decades been candidates for refugee resettlement based solely on their well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries. Their ability to “assimilate” — learn English and embrace the customs of the United States — had no bearing on their asylum applications. That, however, may be about to change: Buried inside the 65-page Sept. 27 directive that also capped the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States next year at 45,000, the lowest since the White House began setting a limit in 1980, there is vague, disconcerting language that lawyers and immigration experts say they have never seen before in reference to refugees in this country.
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