John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Sun Valley Serenade

Posted on August 30, 2019
At the Sun Valley Lodge, they play Sun Valley Serenade in a continuous loop, 24 hours a day.

Starring Glenn Miller, Milton Berle, and Sonja Henie, one of the biggest figure skating stars in the history of the sport, the purpose of the movie was to highlight the beauty of Sun Valley to Hollywood and the rest of the world.

The premise of the movie is pretty flimsy.

A Big Band leader decides to take in a refugee from war-torn Europe to score some good publicity.

When he goes to Ellis Island to pick up the refugee, he discovers not the 10-year-old he was expecting, but an attractive blond, Henie, who is definitely above the age of consent.

As the bandleader tries to back out, the immigration official explains to him, “You signed this document that says you guaranteed that you would take care of her and that she won’t become a public charge.”

Public charge, of course, has been in the news a lot lately, but ever since 1882, when Chester Arthur signed America’s first immigration bill, the concept of public charge has been a key part of our immigration strategy.

In 1883, presumably as a reaction to that new law, Emma Lazarus would write the famous poem, “A New Colossus” that urged a more open approach to

Three years later, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, not far from Ellis Island, just as the Federal government started enforcing in earnest the Chinese Exclusion Act.

And so, America’s schizophrenic approach to immigration would commence.

America would welcome immigrants, who would prove to be the lifeblood of the nation’s economic growth but would periodically pass more restrictionist immigration policies when the flood of new immigrants would overwhelm the system.

From 1880 to 1930, close to 30 million people (mostly European) emigrated to the United States.

Public charge would be used as a device to keep some of the poorest out, despite the promise present in the Lazarus poem.

The idea of public charge is pretty simple.  You can’t get entry into America if you can’t take care of yourself or have somebody take care of you.   And the concept has been reaffirmed at various times in our nation’s history, up to and including the latest actions by the Trump Administration.

Indeed, the Clinton Administration eagerly signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and reaffirmed the idea of public charge in its administrative guidance in 1999.  According to the INS, people who could be dependent on welfare or Social Security disability payments weren’t eligible to become citizens.

Of course, the Trump Administration has moved aggressively to define public charge in the broadest possible terms, making it easier to them to deny immigrants entry to the United States.

We are in an interesting moment in our national history.

We have had a remarkable surge of immigrants over the last several decades, approaching the great wave numbers of the late 19th century.

Many of these immigrants have provided the kind of economic boost, with their energy and their innovative spirit that has created thousands of small businesses and millions of jobs.

Of course, some who have come haven’t lived up to the promise that they won’t become a public charge and they have become wards of the state and they cost the Treasury the hard-earned money of taxpayers.

Like everything in life, it’s a complicated story.

Politically, the Democrats have moved far to the left on immigration, much farther than anything envisioned by Bill Clinton or by Barack Obama, for that matter.  They never would have imagined that promoting the end of our immigration enforcement agencies or getting rid of our southern border with Mexico.

Republicans, on the other hand, have moved far to the right, to place never imagined by Ronald Reagan, who once signed an immigration bill that provided legalization status to 3 million illegal aliens.

It’s hard to see how these two sides can reach any kind of consensus, although one seems pretty obvious.  Let people come in if they are going to help grow our economy and keep them out if they will be a burden to it.

It was in the 1930s where America saw its lowest levels of immigration.  Not coincidentally, that was also a period of a dire and bleak economic depression.

By 1941, immigration to the United States was dominated by refugees from places like Norway and other European countries that were impacted by the gathering storm of war.

In the movie, Sun Valley Serenade, Sonja Henie’s character was Norwegian, and later in the movie, she jumps into the arms of the Band Leader when she hears sirens, mistaking them for air raid warnings.

Didn’t President Trump say he wanted more immigrants from places like Norway?

An interesting side note on Henie and the movie.  She got in trouble for being overly courteous to Adolph Hitler, as he rose to power, meeting with him in 1936 as the competed in Germany for her third Olympic gold medal.

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded Norway, her family displayed a signed photo of Hitler atop a piano in their Oslo home, which may have bought them relief from German air raids, as the home survived the onslaught.

By then, though, Henie was in America, becoming an international film star.

One other interesting note about Sun Valley Serenade.  According to Wikipedia, the film was a favorite in Jewish Displaced Persons Camps in the aftermath of the Holocaust, with the film's light entertainment and quick adaptation of Sonja Henie's character to American life a potential model for Jewish Displaced Persons' futures.

Sun Valley Serenade is a gentle reminder that immigration has been and will always be a part of the American experience.