Tifereth Israel speaker avows that the case for immigration is as strong as ever



Jeff Jacoby, the celebrated op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe, was the speaker at Tifereth Israel Congregation’s Sunday Breakfast Series on March 1.

Jacoby’s first article in the Globe was printed just over 26 years ago, and he reflected on the serious issues that have come and gone in his more than 30 years in journalism, including the violence in Northern Ireland and the scandals of the Dukakis administration. But there are some issues, he said, that continue to be flash points, such as immigration. Jacoby said he is saddened that animus against immigration has become so prominent among conservatives today.

Previously, he said, it was the Democrats who were opposed to immigration and easier paths to citizenship, but over the past generation, party views on immigration have flipped. To demonstrate this point, Jacoby played a clip of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address and compared it to similar comments made by President Donald Trump.

Jacoby said he stands by the same argument today as he made in his 1994 article “Let the Haitians in”; that when our ancestors fled bad conditions in the past, America’s doors were open, and they should remain so. The kinds of newcomers who are risking their lives for freedom are the people we ought to welcome, Jacoby said, adding that he thinks that anti-immigration advocates are making a huge mistake.

He then played another clip, this time of a Republican presidential primary debate between George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. When asked their thoughts on paying for the education of children of immigrants, both were supportive, mentioning open borders. Unfortunately, this clip was cut short due to technical issues, but the message was clear: We should not be demonizing immigrants.

Reagan’s farewell address also mentions immigration, in the form of his version of John Winthrop’s  “city upon a hill”:  “… and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Jacoby shifted gears to speak of the case against immigration, or rather the lack thereof, saying it is as weak today as it ever was. He compared statements made by Pat Buchanan about Mexicans to statements made by Benjamin Franklin about Germans. Both asserted that the “races” (of Mexicans and Germans, respectively) would be unable to assimilate in American culture and would make for poor citizens. He got a laugh from the audience when he said he respects Franklin a lot more than conservative political commentator Buchanan, “to be clear.”

Jacoby said that even in the progressive state of Massachusetts, there is a history of anti-immigrant sentiment, in the form of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s.

For those who say that they don’t mind immigrants, but do object to the illegal ones, Jacoby argued that unjust laws should be changed. He said the concept of an illegal immigrant is a recent one, as the barriers to immigration used to be much less intense  (Jacoby made note that the Chinese Exclusion Act was an egregious exception to this).

He said that legal-versus-illegal immigration has been based on arbitrary quotas, not good public policy. He made an analogy to speeding tickets: If an excessive number of people are getting pulled over for speeding, should we keep pulling them over, or should the speed limit be increased? Obviously, he said, there are safety considerations, but if it’s a relatively safe road despite the many speeding violations, then perhaps the speed limit is too low. Likewise, he said, if the U.S. economy and our ideals keep bringing in so many people regardless of legality, we should want this and reduce the barriers to immigration.

In conclusion, Jacoby said that immigrants are America’s “national growth hormone,” a comment that was met with applause.

AVERY HAMLIN is an assistant to Mel Yoken, the host and moderator of the Sunday Breakfast Series event at Tifereth Israel, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.