The Child Left Behind

My great grandmother came to this country twice. The first time, in 1907, after being detained on Ellis Island for two weeks, her youngest sister Sonia was turned away. Apparently, her head was too big. The rest of the family was free to enter the country, but instead the entire family of seven boarded a steam-liner and returned back to their native Lithuania (at that time part of the Russian empire). Three years later the family tried again. This time Sonia was stopped before even boarding the ship to America. Head size. My great great grandparents were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to make the trip as a party of six, leaving Sonia behind with relatives. The plan was to send money back to Sonia so that once she had grown a little more she could make the journey once again and be reunited with her family. But the early 1900s was a turbulent time in that part of Europe and war was common. First the Russo-Japanese War, then the Russian Revolution, and finally World War I. Communication was difficult and the relatives who took Sonia continued to accept the money even though there were rumors that Sonia had passed away. Even if she had survived, as a Jew living in eastern Europe, we know now that her prospects were bleak unless she could have somehow emigrated. My great grandmother never saw her little sister again.*

I share this story because the President of the United States of America has just issued an order prohibiting citizens of certain majority Muslim countries who have valid visas from legally entering the country. Many are reported stranded in foreign countries or detained, separated from their families. And I’m afraid the President doesn’t understand (or care to understand) the consequences of such an order. Political strife, war, revolution — all these things happen, and when they do they tear families apart, or prevent them from reuniting. No one can predict the true consequences of such an order, but know this: they are profound. Many will miss the opportunity to see a family member for the last time, snuffing out possibilities and even people who will never even be born as a result.

And here is the President simply ignoring or obfuscating the fact that if you have a valid visa in your hand, you have already been vetted. No, the President soldiers on, claiming his order denying entry to millions is justified by some reference to national security. And maybe even some Americans think that reason makes sense right now. But people used to think head size was a valid reason for denying entry into this country, too.

Denying entry into America for individuals with legal visas based on their religion or country of origin? That is no less galling than turning away a small child because her head is too big. It is appalling. It is callous. It is un-American.

*I know all of this because my late grandmother, Lillian Brem, wrote a book describing the incredible life of my great grandmother (her mother). It is an astounding piece of work, including original copies of naturalization papers, other source documents, and the picture of Sonia I’ve included here. After Grandma wrote her book, some cousins of mine did some research on Sonia’s fate and they were able to discover that Sonia passed away at the age of 15 in 1917 after contracting measles. We lost grandma just over a year ago and I miss her dearly.