Donald Trump's immigration policy may have lost him Jewish votes

Fueled by an awareness of their roots as perpetual refugees and recent immigrants, American Jews have long been at the forefront of immigration advocacy in the United States.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing at the White House in Washington, US, July 23, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing at the White House in Washington, US, July 23, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
Donald Trump has leaned heavily on his Israel policy record to make his case to Jewish voters. But polls show that most American Jews first weigh domestic issues when deciding whom to support. And on one issue in particular, immigration, the president’s policies are especially unlikely to have won them over.
Fueled by an awareness of their roots as perpetual refugees and recent immigrants, American Jews have long been at the forefront of immigration advocacy in the United States.
So when, just one week after being sworn in as president, Trump halted travel and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Jews were disproportionately represented in the crowds of protesters who turned out at the nation’s airports.
“It’s an absolute outrage that we are keeping people from coming here for refuge,” Rabbi Suzanne Singer, who traveled 70 miles from her home to protest at Los Angeles International Airport, said at the time. “My mother was a survivor from Auschwitz. As Jews, we know what it’s like to be persecuted.”
Four years later, Trump’s immigration record includes previously unprecedented policies, such as separating families at the border and reducing the cap on refugee admissions to just 15,000 per year. Stephen Miller, the White House aide who has crafted much of that policy, says he wants to further restrict immigration if Trump is reelected, including by zeroing out refugee admissions entirely.
Many American Jews are thinking about that record — and Miller’s ambitions — as they vote in the presidential election. Polls show that three quarters of them are likely to vote for his challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, who has vowed to roll back Trump’s anti-immigration initiatives early in his presidency.
Data about American Jewish attitudes on immigration specifically is limited, but a 2017 American Jewish Committee poll found that three quarters of American Jews disapproved of Trump’s immigration policies, far more than the 59% of Americans overall found by a Washington Post poll the following year.
That corresponds to American Jews’ overall voter patterns: About 70% tend to vote Democratic in national elections, one of the highest rates for any ethnic group. But while Jews tend to be progressive on most political issues, their history imparts an added emotional drive to immigration issues.
“It goes beyond our experience as immigrants,” said Melanie Nezer, the senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group. “There’s also our historical experiences, as refugees, in particular as people who were persecuted based on their faith and ethnicity, throughout many, many generations.”
Jewish Democratic groups, and liberal groups like Bend the Arc and J Street, have emphatically opposed Trump’s immigration restrictions in their advocacy. But American Jewish immigration advocacy predates the Holocaust, when liberal refugee admissions by the United States could have changed the course of Jewish history. In the 1920s, American Jewish groups rallied against a bill that drastically reduced immigration from Europe, which ultimately resulted in Jews being stranded on the continent under Nazi rule.
So American Jews were supportive in 2013 when President Barack Obama proposed immigration reforms that would create a path to legal citizenship for undocumented immigrants and streamline the legal immigration system while beefing up border security and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers.
“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too,” Obama said, citing the biblical commandment that has fueled many a conversation at a Passover Seder.
That commandment is the most oft-repeated in the Torah, appearing at least 36 times. Barbara Weinstein, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, at the time called it “one of the core biblical basics.”
Trump ran on a promise of undoing Obama’s reforms, and his campaign routinely trafficked in xenophobic rhetoric.
Once in office, he quickly set to work making good on those promises, issuing that early executive order, which came to be known as the Muslim ban, and fighting to preserve it against multiple legal challenges, some of them mounted by Jewish advocacy groups.
The Jewish presence at protests against the order was evidenced by the hastily drawn signs some were bearing (“Our Jewish family stands with refugees” read one at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C.) and by the kippot dotting heads in the crowd.
A call went out to lawyers to assist folks who might be blocked from entering the country after landing at U.S. airports (some people from banned countries were caught mid-travel), and there were Jews among those as well. Chava Brandress, a lawyer who said a pro-bono listserv she belonged to “exploded,” was among the Dulles protesters.
“I felt, ‘I can’t understand how this is happening again,’” she said then, referring to the restrictive laws in the early 20th century that prevented many European Jews from finding refuge in the United States, often with deadly consequences.
Nezer cited the Muslim ban as one of three immigration episodes that galvanized American Jews. Another, she said, was the Trump administration’s practice of separating children and their parents at the southern border, which resulted in thousands of families being separated. The administration still cannot find the parents of hundreds of children.
Nezer said the family separations especially hit a nerve for Jews raised on stories of World War II-era children separated from their parents. She described a typical call: “I’m appalled to hear that babies are being taken from their parents, what can I do?”
The third episode Nezer cited was the 2018 shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. The gunman, who killed 11 worshipers, said he targeted Tree of Life because one of its congregations worked with HIAS through the group’s Welcome Campaign, which advocates for refugees and helps to settle them in their communities.
At the time, Trump and his allies were warning of an “invasion” by migrant caravans heading for the southern border, leading many to draw a connection between that rhetoric and the gunman’s actions.
The shooting fueled a spike in donations to HIAS, from $7.4 million in 2017 to $17.3 million in 2018. The group used those funds to supplement government funds to settle refugees — and to expand the number of synagogues in the Welcome Campaign. There are now 455 in 37 states.
Few if any of the synagogues working with HIAS are Orthodox, a reflection of the political divide between them and the majority of American Jews. Nezer said a handful of Orthodox congregations joined the campaign at its inception but now appear not to be active participants.
One recent poll commissioned by an Orthodox magazine found that 83% of Orthodox Jews said they would vote for Trump, and haredi Orthodox communities especially have been outspoken in their support for the president.
But even among the minority of Jews who are politically conservative, immigration has not been a prominent issue — and some of Trump’s Jewish supporters say they can’t back his approach to immigration.
“I love Trump but I still don’t agree with him on immigration,” Heschy Tischler, a leading right-wing activist in Orthodox Brooklyn, told JTA this fall. “I believe this country should be open to everyone.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition did not respond to a request for comment about the role immigration is playing in this year’s election. But it has never prioritized immigration in its advocacy. It criticized Obama’s immigration moves only on procedural grounds, sidestepping any statements about their content at a time when many other Republican groups lambasted them.
More recently, Trump got a hero’s welcome at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s April 2019 conference, particularly for his Israel policies. But when he brought up his strictures on immigration, the reaction was more muted, especially when he repeated “we’re full,” a discomfiting reminder of how U.S. authorities turned away refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina who is one of Trump’s staunchest supporters, was in the room and took note of the muted reaction. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time that he wished Trump had put it differently.
“America does not need more St. Louis,” Graham said, referring to the shipful of Jewish refugees turned away from America in 1939. “The asylum laws in this country represent the best of who we are. They’re broken, let’s repair them, but let’s not lose the concept of asylum. I wish [Trump] would have started with that context.”
Some of America’s immigrant Jews are more politically conservative, in part because they are fearful that the political conditions that drove them from their home countries could be replicated in a Democratic-led United States. That can translate into support for some of Trump’s immigration policies.
“They believe that the anti-Semitism that is carried through much of the Muslim world is something that could easily spread in the United States,” David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, said about his many Iranian-born congregants.
At the same time, Wolpe said about his congregation, “There’s a tremendous sympathy to immigrants, and I think anger at the ill-treatment of immigrants.”
Biden has appealed to that sympathy and anger in making his case to American Jews. “We must welcome the stranger by reasserting our founding promise as a nation of immigrants and asylum seekers,” he wrote in a JTA op-ed last month.
He has vowed to increase refugee admissions to 125,000 a year, to create a task force to reunite separated families and to preserve Obama’s reforms so that people who were brought to the country illegally as children can stay. Those promises are likely to resonate with the vast majority of American Jews.
“We understand what it means to be displaced, to be marginalized, and to be homeless,” said Gayle Pomerantz, the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami. “It is therefore central to our mission as Jews to welcome the stranger and ease their suffering.”