Emanuel Celler was born in Brooklyn in 1888. His father, Henry, owned a whiskey business; during Emanuel's childhood the Cellers' basement held a 25,000 gallon whiskey tank filled with the family brand, Echo Spring. When Henry Celler's whiskey business failed, he was forced to find employment selling wine door-to-door to local residents. Soon after Emanuel graduated from public high school and entered Columbia College, his father died and his mother, Josephine, passed away five months later. In his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn, Emanuel Celler wrote, "I became the head of the household ... I took up [my father's] wine route. I went to school in the morning and sold wines all afternoon until seven o'clock in the evening." Despite these burdens, Emanuel Celler was a star student at Columbia and Columbia Law School, graduating from the latter in 1912.
From the very first, Manny Celler's career reflected his lifelong interest in the plight of refugees and immigrants. Some of his earliest clients were his wine customers, most of whom were immigrants. More than one fell afoul of the immigration laws, and Celler worked hard to keep them from being deported for minor infractions. During World War 1, Celler served as an appeal agent for his local draft board. After the war, Celler's law practice flourished, and the successful attorney organized two banks and served as a director of two others.
In 1922, a political acquaintance convinced Celler to run for Congress as a Tammany Hall Democrat. Celler enlisted friends, relatives and neighbors to canvass for him door-to-door. Stressing "the evils of Prohibition and the virtues of the League of Nations," although the district had never before elected a Democrat, Celler won the election by some 3,000 votes. In March of 1923, he assumed a seat he would hold for 49 years and 10 months, the second longest term in Congressional history.
Celler made his first major speech on the House floor during consideration of the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924. Three years earlier, Congress had imposed a quota that limited immigration for persons of any nationality to 3 percent of that nationality present in the United States in 1910, with an annual admission limit of 356,000 immigrants. This "national origins" system was structured to discriminate against Eastern and Southern European immigrants such as Italians, Russians, Poles, Slavs and, of course, Yiddish-speaking Jews. The Johnson Act of 1924, which Celler opposed, sought further restriction by cutting the total annual number of immigrants and limiting each nationality to 2 percent of its total number in 1890, virtually eliminating all immigrants other than those from England, France, Ireland and Germany.
The Johnson act passed the isolationist Congress and was signed into law. Despite this setback, Celler had found his cause, and for the next four decades he advocated eliminating the national origin as a basis for immigration restriction. At no time were his efforts more critical than in the 1930s, when the United States, England and France, among others, proved unable or unwilling to open their doors to victims of Nazi persecution and - as was later discovered - genocide.
Celler's determination to fight U. S. immigration quotas was particularly reinforced one Sunday during World War II, when a bearded rabbi came to his home. Celler always left the door unlocked on Sundays so his constituents could enter without ringing or knocking. The rabbi in black hat and long coat, clutching a cane, spoke forcefully to Celler. "Don't you see, can't you see?" the rabbi asked, "Won't you see that there are millions millions being killed. Can't we save some of them? Can't you, Mr. Congressman, do something?" Celler equivocated, averring that President Roosevelt had told him that he sympathized with the Jewish plight but could not divert ships being used to transport war material and soldiers to bring in refugees. The rabbi's reply moved Celler to tears: "If six million cattle had been slaughtered," he observed, "there would have been greater interest."
After the war, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler resolved to liberalize the immigration laws. In 1946, Congress so restricted the number of Displaced Persons who could enter the U.S. that, despite the starvation in Europe, fewer than 3,000 DP's actually emigrated here. Celler's determined efforts led to the passage, in 1948, of a bill which allowed 339,000 DP's to enter the country, many of whom were Jewish. Finally, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law an act that eliminated national origins as a consideration for immigration, culminating Celler's 41 year fight to overcome discrimination against Eastern European Jews and Catholics.
In 1981, at the age of 93, Emanuel Celler passed away. Today, nearly 75 percent of American Jews descend from immigrants from Eastern Europe. In this season in which we celebrate the ancient Hebrews' exodus to freedom, it is fitting to recall Emanuel Celler's efforts to make America a promised land for Jewish immigrants, and for all victims of persecution.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society