“When I heard political leaders suggest that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing a warn-torn [sic] country is admitted…that’s shameful,” Obama said, growing visibly heated. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”Of course, refugee eligibility has sometimes been determined based on religion/ethnicity, most famously in the Save Soviet Jews law of the early 1970s. This is not exactly obscure history, since a noteworthy fraction of the current punditariat (the Gessen siblings, Eugene Volokh, etc.) and media moguls (Sergey Brin of Google) got into America under this special privilege for Soviet Jews. For example, Julia Ioffe writes in Foreign Policy:
Je Suis Refugeei.e., almost a half year after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but who can remember detailed dates like November 9, 1989?
America can — and must — do more to help Europe’s migrants. I’m living proof of why.
BY JULIA IOFFE SEPTEMBER 7, 2015
The reason I’m writing this in English — and that I have a column in Foreign Policy at all — is that 25 years ago, on April 28, 1990
my family arrived in the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union. It is a day the four of us mark every year because it was the beginning of a new, free, and prosperous life. Had it not been for the American Jews lobbying Congress and the White House on our behalf for years, had it not been for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, had it not been for the fact that the geopolitical struggle against the USSR was hitched up to its humanitarian ramifications, had it not been for Mikhail Gorbachev wanting to put a human face on socialism, I would be writing this in Russian. More likely, I probably wouldn’t be writing this at all.You didn’t have to be religiously Jewish, just ethnically Jewish.
I think often about April 28, 1990, and the two years my parents spent waiting in lines at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It’s a moment that splits my life in two. What would my life have been like if not for all those political forces — and my parents’ foresight and dedication — that snapped my 7-year-old self on a radically different course?
I don’t know that my life would have been terrible, but I know that I would not have reconnected with my family’s Jewish heritage.
I knew a Russian lady back in the post-Soviet Yeltsin era who was one of the first of the big wave of Slavic blondes to wash up in the U.S. The INS was threatening to kick her out, so her latest strategy to stay in the U.S.A. was to gather genealogical documents from Russia that would prove, if you looked at them from just the right angle, that she was Jewish and thus qualified for refugee status under the Jackson-Vanik agreement. I could never keep straight in my head her complicated genealogical theory of why she was, legally, Jewish — it was like one of those theories that the King of England would commission during the Hundred Years War about why he was also the rightful King of France.
Nor could I understand why being Jewish in Yeltsin’s mid-1990s Russia entitled you to refugee status in America. Practically every time I opened the newspaper in the mid-1990s there was an interview with a Jewish economist from Harvard or MIT about how the Yeltsin government was implementing all the advanced ideas they had told them about.