By 1891, Samuel Reigar had had enough.
Born in 1856, Reigar — like all Jews living in Russia at that time — grew up facing bleak prospects. But life for Jews in Russia got significantly worse as Reigar married and decided to build a family with his wife, Ida. Since the 1790s, Jews had been required to live within a region of West Russia called the “Pale of Settlement,” where economic opportunities were limited and where most Jews lived in poverty. But new laws placed severe limits on the already-limited schooling and job options open to Jews, and consistent anti-Jewish riots, known as pogroms, meant that attacks, rape and even murders of Jews in the Pale of Settlement were a common occurrence.
Faced with the bleakest of conditions, Samuel did the only thing he could: He left. In 1891, he packed up his wife and his oldest son, Matthew, and left Russia to start a new life in New York, settling at 97 Orchard Street, the site of today’s Tenement Museum. In 1893, Samuel sent for his three youngest children, and the family reunited in New York. (It is likely Reigar had only enough money for some of the family to come at first, and had to establish himself in the United States and save to bring over the rest, which was common for destitute immigrants at the time.)
The Reigars are lucky they landed in New York during the Harrison and Cleveland administrations and not during the Trump administration, which proposed last month new regulations that would levy application fees on those seeking to claim asylum in the United States.
Such fees would have almost certainly left families like the Reigars trapped in the dangerous confines of the Pale of Settlement for even longer, with potentially catastrophic consequences — from 1903 to 1906 the pogroms in Russia became deadlier and even more bloody, with thousands of Jews in the settlement murdered and many more injured.
To understand why this proposed asylum fee is so problematic, you have to put yourself in the shoes of those seeking asylum today. Many immigrants, migrants and refugees, especially those seeking asylum, find themselves in the same position Samuel Reigar did back in 1891. They are typically fleeing awful situations in great haste, and arrive with extremely limited financial resources.
The Guardian reports that Latin America suffers 33 percent of the world’s homicides, despite having 8 percent of its population, a product of rampant gang violence, easy access to guns and a deteriorating security apparatus, a situation that looks unlikely to improve soon.
Combine this danger with extreme poverty, and sometimes immigrants are coming with little more than the clothes on their backs, whatever they can carry in a piece of luggage and a keen sense of determination to escape from a horrific existence.
In the middle of April, the Associated Press reported on José Adolfo Guzmán, his partner and her 2-year-old daughter, who were part of a caravan of asylum seekers from Honduras to the United States. Guzman, age 27, spoke to the reporter about the threat of gang violence he and his family faced back home, explaining his decision to join the caravan. “It is crazy to be in a country where life is impossible.”
The AP reported that despite several failed attempts to cross Mexico, Guzmán will try again with his partner. “We will have to grab our suitcases again and chase that dream,” he told the AP. But this time he will leave behind their little girl, presumably for the same reasons Reigar was forced to leave his children in Russia.
For someone like Guzmán, money is a massive obstacle. Next time he tries to reach the United States, imagine he makes it all the way to the Land of Opportunity, successfully entering the asylum system after having left his child behind, only to find he can’t pay Trump’s proposed asylum fee.
Why would the administration enact such a policy? This policy is rooted in the notion that those seeking asylum are doing something inherently wrong and should have to “pay” for the privilege. Increasingly, the Trump administration treats asylum seekers like criminal wrongdoers rather than people fleeing life-threatening conditions in the hope of finding safety and starting new lives.
In this way, the administration’s policies fit into the United States’ long history of piecemeal immigration restriction, in which laws and administrative practices were put in place to slow entry into the country without outright banning it. For example, in the 18th century, the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons of good character,” limiting rights to the indigenous and people of color. The 1875 Page Act and 1891 Immigration Act barred immigrants with criminal backgrounds and groups perceived to be carriers of disease.
In the 20th century, the United States implemented the National Origins Act or Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, while expanding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The legislation was implemented on the racist premise that these groups would “pollute” American stock.
The assumption behind each of these pieces of legislation — that some people are not worthy of becoming American — is vastly different from the expansive vision of George Washington, who wrote to a group of Irish immigrants in 1783: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights & privileges.”
Access to America cannot be restricted to the “opulent stranger” but must remain open to the “oppressed and persecuted of all nations.” I hardly think Washington would approve of asking newcomers to pay a fee before they could be “welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
Like Samuel Reigar, asylum seekers today are fleeing horrific conditions to come here with little or nothing. To charge a form of admission fee penalizes people when they are most desperate and most at risk. Even if our history is complicated and we haven’t always lived up to our stated ideals, the meaning of Washington’s words remain true: Our nation should be and became a haven for all those fleeing unjust, inhumane conditions in hopes of finding liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America.
We’d be wise to remember that it was precisely that promise that made America what it is today.