Otto considered moving his family from Europe as early as 1938, but he didn't get serious until the spring of 1941. That's when Otto began working every angle he could -- contacting officials, friends, and relatives -- looking with increasing frustration and fear for some place his family could go. But things had changed by 1941, and leaving Europe was much more difficult. Otto kept trying, writing letters right up until Germany declared war on the United States. Less than a year later Otto, his wife Edith, and his two young daughters were forced into hiding.
The desperation of Otto's search for escape was recently revealed in letters that turned up in an archive in New York. The heartbreaking documents show that he had even managed to secure a single visa -- for Cuba -- before the German government closed the door. But perhaps the most sobering aspect of these letters is that it wasn't just a tale of vicious Nazis holding in those they intended to exterminate. By 1941, it wasn't just the Germans who had restricted travel. The U.S. had also placed limits on immigration from Europe.
But immigration rules were changing under the Nazi regime and in the U.S. There were nearly 300,000 people on a waiting list for a U.S. immigration visa.
What was going on in America? Fear. With the economy still struggling back from the depths of the Great Depression, and stirrings of possible war on two fronts, fear was at the center of American policy. Fear of outsiders. Of the other. And a president we all respect for his leadership both at home and in war was at the center of these restrictions.
Due in part to anti-Semitism, isolationism, the Depression, and xenophobia; the immigration policy of the Roosevelt Administration made it very difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas.
With congress still unwilling to make any serious attempt at blocking the escalation in Iraq, the next great issue to hit the floor is likely to be immigration. Just as in 1941, the United States faces its own fears when it talks of immigration: fear that outsiders will come in to steal our jobs, fear that a flood of people from Central and South America will alter the makeup and nature of American culture, fear that among those who cross our borders are those who want to do us harm.
At the far right of this issue are organizations like the "Minutemen" and congressmen like Republican presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo who want to slam shut the gates. They want to impose draconian measures against illegal immigration, and at the same time drastically reduce legal immigration. A good part of this is plain and simple racism. Yes, it can be couched in economic terms, but bigotry is always posed as protecting the status quo -- our families, our "traditions," our jobs -- against some menace. No matter how you draw it, it's ugly. These people are thrilled by a drop in border crossings achieved by patrolling the southern border with National Guard troops and building triple fences. They're thrilled to see the United States ringed by motion sensors, cameras, razor wire, and helicopter patrols. Of course, they'd be more thrilled if, as Tancredo and his fellow conservatives insist, millions of immigrants already in the country were rounded up and marched to the other side of those shiny new fences.
In a position supposedly more moderate is George W. Bush, who has frequently called for a program of guest workers to allow immigrants access to jobs in the U.S., but not allow them to become citizens.
This program would match willing foreign workers with willing American employers for jobs Americans are not doing.
Those final words in the statement are the lynchpin of the "guest worker" argument. In every discussion, it quickly comes down to "we must have these workers, because there are jobs Americans are not willing to do." Sadly, a number of Democratic senators and congressmen seem to be in support of this idea.
There were plenty of Big Lies being sold in 1941. If there is a Big Lie at the heart of immigration debate in 2007, this is it. There are jobs Americans are unwilling to do. Americans go down into underground mines day after long dark day. Americans work ankle deep in the blood in slaughterhouses, and waist-deep in the effluvia of sewers. They sweat on road crews and in tobacco fields. There is no job too hard for an American worker. The guest worker argument is merely a means to extend what's already happening: the misuse and mistreatment of immigrant workers as a way of reducing the average wage paid to Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder. While companies are skimping on what they pay out, these labor savings are not being passed on in lower prices.
You might assume that the plentiful supply of low-wage illegal workers would translate into significantly lower prices for the goods and services they produce. In fact, their impact on consumer prices — call it the "illegal-worker discount" — is surprisingly small.
Where construction companies are able to staff their work force with illegal immigrants, the wages paid to construction workers are lower -- but not home prices. The low wages that go to farm workers do not mean lower prices at the grocery, even on items where labor costs are the highest. The argument that without these low cost workers prices would soar, is a lie promulgated by those employers dodging wages, benefits, and the law.
The current system between illegal immigrants and the companies that hire them is not unlike that on an antebellum plantation. Workers can't complain for fear of punishment and expulsion. Employers can extract toil without worry of how they treat or pay their employees. Adding a guest worker program might change the current system from slavery to share-cropping, but that is not an admirable goal and shouldn't be desired by any but those who seek a way to continue their exploitation while ending their legal risk.
If there are truly more jobs available than Americans to fill them, there is only one solution -- make more Americans. Raise the limits on immigration. Ease the paperwork needed to get into the country. Eliminate the family prisons where even those applying for political asylum are held. Don't expend America's energy worrying about how to keep people out. Expend it making sure that immigrants get in, and that they get jobs with the protections and pay they deserve as American citizens.
In 1941, the doors of America were closed by fear. If they had not been, then Otto Franks's daughter, Anne Frank, might be a 77-year old woman living in America today. Her skill with words might have made her an honored author now approaching the end of a long, successful career. She could have been a beacon for America's openness, rather than a poignant lesson on what happens when nations are run by fear. Who knows how many such talents are being held out of our country today?
The price we pay for apples at the store may not reflect the low wages paid out to immigrant workers, but the price we pay as a nation for our xenophobia is incalculable.