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I’m A Proud Veteran. I’m Even Prouder To Be The Grandson Of An Illegal Immigrant.

I have achieved accomplishments our society values — an Ivy League education, decorated combat service as an Army officer, and home ownership.

I served two deployments to Iraq leading the most impressive young Americans, some as young as 18, during the most brutish years of the Iraqi insurgency. After leaving the Army, I attended Harvard on the GI Bill and soon after bought a home with my wife in the Nation’s capital.

Military service was a defining moment in my life and I am proud to have served honorably while ensuring all of my soldiers returned home safely from Iraq.

But I am even more proud of being the grandson of an “illegal immigrant.”

In 1938, shortly after the Nazi Kristallnacht pogroms, my grandfather, Joseph Schildkraut, a Polish Jew, living in the outskirts of Krakow, pleaded with his parents and seven bothers and sisters to flee Poland for a more secure future in America. Joseph presciently recognized that the fate of the German Jews was a prologue for the rest of European Jewry. Sadly, Joseph failed to persuade his family that the Nazis were more insidious than the Russian pogroms of the 19th Century that the Jews had weathered.

A few months before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Joseph snuck on a passenger ship in Boulogne, France destined for the U.S. owned Panama Canal Zone. At the age of 27, all alone and with no money or formal education, Joseph arrived in Panama as a stowaway. He was welcomed by the U.S. Navy with handcuffs and thrown in jail for 30 days. Sadly, the fate of Joseph’s family was far worse. Most of them were rounded-up by the Nazis after the invasion of Poland and transported to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where many of them perished.

As the Navy officials were deliberating on whether to send Joseph back to Europe, he befriended several of the military police and offered to serve as their cook. At the end of his 30-day jail sentence, Joseph was hired as a Navy cook and served 24 months on active duty in the Canal Zone cooking goulash and other Polish delicacies for the sailors. Joseph was one of the fortunate “illegals.”

Joseph (Far left) serving as a navy cook when he first arrived in the Panama Canal Zone.

Joseph (Far left) serving as a navy cook when he first arrived in the Panama Canal Zone Image by Getty Images

At the time, America had very restrictive policies on accepting Jewish refugees from Europe due to a combination of anti-Semitism, questions of Jewish loyalty and the belief that the purported Nazi atrocities were mere “rumor.”

Around the same time, in one of the most infamous incidents and stain on our moral standing, the U.S. turned away the MS St. Louis carrying 1,000 Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba. The State Department told the ship that its passengers would have to join the years-long waiting list and return to Europe. The ship was forced to return to Europe and one out of four of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

In August 1940, the Navy successfully lobbied for Joseph to receive a registered alien status and he sailed from Balboa, Panama to the Port of Miami. Like other refugees who came before him who risked it all, from places such as Ireland or Sicily, Joseph became an entrepreneur and opened a successful fur business in Chicago. He learned English, earned an associate’s degree in the evening, and started a family — all while growing a small fur business.

But my grandfather’s grit is unremarkable. Refugees are naturally risk-takers and their hustle is apparent after they arrive here. Refugees are 45% more likely to become entrepreneurs and start a small business than US-born Americans. In addition, they contribute more to the U.S. economy than they receive.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, refugees contributed more than $343 billion in revenue to federal, state and local coffers. On balance, refugees contributed $63 billion more than they received in benefits from various social, medical and welfare programs. Unsurprisingly, several prominent studies have concluded that refugees are less likely than native-born Americans to engage in violent crimes. In fact, the preponderance of U.S. cities that have received large influxes of refugees have actually experienced a decrease in crime and are now safer.

When I hear members of Congress proposing legislation to create additional barriers for asylees to enter and process through the U.S. immigration system, I think of my grandfather’s story and whether he would have been granted asylum in 1939 if these new proposals existed then. In all likelihood, he would have been returned, like the Jews on the MS St. Louis, to Europe, and met the same fate as the rest of European Jewry.

Specifically, this new legislation would require asylees to pay a processing fee, enter through a select U.S. or third-country port of entry, and demonstrate a higher certainty of persecution than the current standard.

Where is our moral compass when we can no longer confidently say that the Jews who fled the Nazis, like my grandfather, would be granted asylum under the Senate’s Secure and Protect Act of 2019?

Perhaps the moral argument no longer resonates with most Americans, but our economic welfare should. While our society values pedigree and military service, I assert that these refugees, often labeled as “undesirables,” are just the opposite. They have grit, hustle, and courage — the characteristics that enable America’s competitive advantage and economic vibrance.

Steven Katz is the grandson of an illegal immigrant. He was also an active duty Army officer from 2003-2009. He served two tours of duty to Iraq in ground combat leadership positions: 2004-2005 in Tikrit and 2006-2007 in Ramadi. He earned the Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge during the surge in Anbar province. He holds a Master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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