Public Charge Laws Prevented My Grandmother’s Escape from Nazi Germany

Marc Shapiro
November 28, 2018

Read this article as originally published in Baltimore Jewish Times.

The Trump administration recently proposed a change to federal immigration rules that would significantly broaden who is deemed a “public charge” in the U.S. For many of us in the American Jewish community, this harmful proposal is a painful reminder of the dangerous consequences of such policies, as such rules were initially imposed to curb the number of Jewish immigrants in the years preceding and during the Holocaust. My grandmother was one of these immigrants.

In 1924, the U.S. enacted hyper-racialized immigration laws that restricted the imm- igration of Jews and others from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924, which codified the original public charge rule, remained the rule of law as Nazis won the 1933 elections in Germany and Jews tried to flee Europe. Instead of accepting refugees, the U.S. capped the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into the country and denied entry to those that they feared would become “public charges.”

The U.S. viewed my family as unwanted “economic burdens,” thereby ruling out America as an escape route from Nazi Germany. My great-uncles were only able to come to the U.S. because they were sponsored by a factory owner. Two visas to Cuba were secured for my great-grandparents, but heartbreakingly, they were unable to find a way out for my grandmother. All of 19 years old, my grandmother was forced to go into hiding underground for two years in Berlin. By her own fortitude and luck, and the courage of a few righteous gentiles, she survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Six million Jews and 5 million other persecuted peoples did not. Had U.S. immigration policy been different, who knows how many more would have survived? Certainly if the U.S. had allowed my family to immigrate, my great- grandmother would not have died without knowing if her youngest daughter was alive or dead in Germany.

We must remember that at the time, the U.S. immigration policy that denied entry to my grandmother was seen as sensible. Xenophobia and hate were disguised as financial pragmatism and as acts of national self-interest. Now, the Trump administration is using similar rationales to broaden the definition of a public charge to include — for the first time — non-cash basic needs benefits like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). If the proposal is enacted, the U.S. could deny citizenship or legal immigration status on the basis that applicants have used or may access SNAP or other benefits like Medicaid. This proposal is the latest in a string of anti-immigrant rhetoric touted by this administration.

American Jews have witnessed this rhetoric being used to embolden hateful action, seen as recently as the tragic shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, and as far back as the immigration policies that kept my grandmother out of the United States in the 1930s. Today, the American public — and especially American Jews — must not let history repeat itself. We must oppose this proposed rule change in the strongest possible terms.

When my grandmother was finally able to reunite with her family in the U.S., she dedicated her life to helping those in need. She worked for decades as a social worker, first for the Red Cross and then in schools. She understood that all people, regardless of background, deserve basic human rights like access to food. She passed these values on to her children and, in turn, to her grandchildren. It was these values that motivated me to advocate for an end to hunger as a board member for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Like my grandmother, MAZON believes that no one should go hungry, especially in a nation of such wealth as America. Trump’s proposed change goes against our Jewish values, shared history, and commitment to eliminating food insecurity for everyone in the U.S. SNAP is a vital part of our social safety net, helping hard-working Americans — both citizens and legal immigrants — feed their families. We must reject the Trump administration’s attempt to invoke dangerous stereotypes about poverty and immigrants to further their own hateful agenda. If enacted, their rule change would only make our country poorer, sicker and less compassionate.

Today, people seek out immigration to the U.S. for many of the same reasons as my grandmother — to flee persecution, to reunite with family and to build a better life for future generations. And chances are, someone in your family came to America for those same reasons. Penalizing immigrants for trying to feed their families is unnecessary, impractical, and immoral. We have an opportunity to voice opposition to this cruel proposal by submitting public comments. Please speak up before it’s too late.

Ana Mendelson is a board member of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in speech language pathology at Northwestern University.