These days, when I hear the conservative mantra that people ought to come to America legally and follow the law and get in line, I wonder what, exactly, they’re talking about. My family—by that I mean, the dozens listed above—all came here legally, but we weren’t exactly part of the immigration system nor did we follow any law on the books. We were refugees, and refugees are usually counted outside the elaborate visa system that everyone agrees is broken. In fact, usually they’re let in by presidential diktat.
Here’s how we got in: In the last two decades of the Cold War, Jewish groups in America began to lobby actively for their brethren trapped inside a Soviet Union that would both abused them and refused to let them leave. Washington smelled a geopolitical opportunity and railed against Moscow’s callous treatment of the Jews, starting with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (1974), which applied trade sanctions against the Soviet Union for not letting its Jews leave. President Ronald Reagan pushed hard on the idea that everyone had a right to emigrate if they so chose, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed over half a million Soviets, many of them Jews, had emigrated to the U.S. (Another million or two went to Israel, and a few hundred thousand to Germany and Canada.)
In other words, my family got to move to America not because we followed some strict, unchanging law etched into a granite tablet somewhere, but because there was political will in Washington to push for us, and because that political will dovetailed perfectly with America’s foreign policy priorities at the time. That decision to allow hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews into the U.S. circumvented the legal immigration system by executive fiat, and it is a power that Congress gives to the president, to make exceptions to the refugee quotas and caps. This is what a huge sidestepping it was: In 1989 alone, the U.S. took in 56,000 Soviet Jews. Today, the quota on refugees from Europe and Central Asia is just 2,200. The highest refugee quota today goes to East and South Asia, at 35,000. President Barack Obama has a discretionary buffer of some extra refugee visas, but there are only 3,000 of them.