Book Précis: After they closed the gates: Jewish illegal immigration to the United States, 1921-1965


The following is a brief book précis of After they closed the gates: Jewish illegal immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, by Libby Garland.

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After They Close the Gates Book CoverGarland argues that American immigration quota laws stimulated illegal immigration from Europe. She makes two claims that guide the narrative of the text. First, she asserts that the history of illegal immigration cannot be interpreted by reviewing the letter of the law and enforcement alone (p. 1). It requires telling stories about what the law meant to people through their experiences. Second, Garland claims that Jews, unlike Mexicans and Asians were able to decouple and shed their ethnic identity from illegal immigration (p. 2).

Garland uses a web of relationships connecting characters, events, and interactions to weave together a series of interrelated stories. Her unifying storyline is that restriction creates opportunities for non-compliance and criminality. The quota laws did not change the underlying conditions motivating Jewish immigration to America; the desires of their families in America, or the desperate conditions experienced in Eastern Europe. Motivation and opportunity created by legislative ambiguity, enforcement difficulties, and the economics and financial rewards of facilitating illegal immigration resulted in criminal activity. According to Garland, Jewish illegal immigration was common knowledge following passage of the quota laws (pp. 91, 146). She provides evidence from government reports, interviews, and other accounts that describe how closely Jews were associated with illegal immigration and related criminal activity (pp. 90, 96, 101, 109, 113).
Just underneath Garland’s stories is a complex subplot about how Jews shed their popular association with immigration criminality. Jewish advocacy groups and individuals representing American Jews were able to help craft an impression of respectability that comes along with positive assumptions about citizenship, while also establishing Jews as white Europeans. Through Garland’s telling of the Jewish immigration story, we discover patterns within the Jewish community. One pattern is American Jewish leadership’s advocacy and influence to protect the positive identity of already established American Jews, even at the expense of those seeking immigration. Leadership guarded against advocacy for Jews who potentially identify American Jewry with illegal and un-American activity. In doing so they protected American Jewish status as American citizens preventing conditions promoting alien citizen status (pp. 44, 115).

During the interwar years, American Jewish leadership establishes a place for American Jewry within the mainstream of American society. While providing legal and political resistance to the Michigan Registration legislation, Jewish leadership asserted their claim to European whiteness, distanced themselves from other groups such as Asians, Mexicans, and Communists, dispelled the myth of ethnic criminality, and asserted their standing as protectors of constitutional rights and legal legislation (pp. 149-151, 165). They argued not as members of a minority group requiring protection, but as Americans protecting the Constitution and American values (p. 167).

Garland draws together an impressive argument based on a range of documentary evidence. Generally, her arguments are well supported and integrated, which is an achievement given that successful illegal immigration is inherently difficult to track because of the clandestine nature of the behaviour being studied. Although I am confident that her assertion that restriction stimulated illegal immigration is sound, she does ask the reader to take a causal leap of faith about how the Jewish community shed the stigma of illegal immigration. Although intuitively logical, the topic merits comparative study among other ethnic groups that also shed their identities as illegal immigrants to test if Garland’s leap of faith is justified.


Garland, Libby. After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Book Précis: After they closed the gates: Jewish illegal immigration to the United States, 1921-1965. by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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