Public charge laws prevented my grandmother’s escape from Nazi Germany

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The Trump administration recently proposed a change to federal immigration rules that would significantly broaden who is deemed a “public charge” in the United States. 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 United States enacted hyper-racialized immigration laws that restricted the immigration of Jews and others from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924, which codified the original public charge rule, remained the law as Nazis won the 1933 elections in Germany and Jews tried to flee Europe. Instead of accepting refugees, the United States capped the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into the country and denied entry to those that they feared would become “public charges.”


This country 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 United States 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, luck, and the courage of a few righteous gentiles, she survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Six million Jews and five million other persecuted peoples did not. Had U.S. immigration policy been different, who knows how many more would have survived? Certainly if the United States 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 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). If the proposal is
enacted, the United States could deny citizenship or legal immigration status on the basis of applicants having used or the possibility of them accessing 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.

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When my grandmother was finally able to reunite with her family here, 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. The president’s proposed change goes against our Jewish values, shared history, and commitment to eliminating food insecurity for everyone in the United States. 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 administration’s attempt to invoke dangerous stereotypes about poverty and immigrants to further its own hateful agenda. If enacted, the rule change would only make our country poorer, sicker and less compassionate.


Today, people seek out immigration to the United States 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. 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 grew up in Fairfax. She attended Gesher Jewish Day School and Congregation Olam Tikvah. She is a board member of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

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