During this nightmarish election season it's hard to imagine, but politicians of all stripes used to celebrate immigrants coming to this country. Even Ronald Reagan, a man worshiped by conservatives, did: "Call it mysticism, if you will, but I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here ... to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom and special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land."
Flash-forward to 2016, and the standard-bearer for Reagan's party has turned immigrant status into a dangerous weapon, calling undocumented Mexicans "rapists" and advocating for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Donald Trump's rise — and his threatening behavior toward marginalized communities — has made the voices of immigrants more important than ever to our political discourse.
Anna Kaplan is a Jewish Iranian immigrant who has been living in America for 37 years. She's a town councilwoman in Long Island, New York, in the midst of a tough five-way Democratic primary to determine who will face the Republican candidate, Jack Martins, in November, when voters will decide who they want to represent New York's third congressional district. Her primary is June 28, but Kaplan made some time to sit down with us and discuss her candidacy, her life story, and why she wants to be a voice for all immigrants in Congress.
Marin Cogan: What do you remember of your life in Iran?
Anna Kaplan: I was born in a small city called Tabriz, which is near the border of Iran and Turkey. We moved to Tehran when I was about five years old.
For the most part, I think Iranian people are wonderful people, but there was anti-Semitism. We didn't advertise that we were Jews. Once, my mother took me to a supermarket, and I saw the owner turn around and say to a woman, "Don't touch the fruit. Tell me what you want and I'll put it in a bag for you." I didn't understand.
Afterward I asked my mom why he had done that, and she told me that the shopkeeper knew the customer was Jewish. He didn't mind selling to her, but he didn't want her to touch the merchandise. That was a very eye-opening experience. Obviously it made an impression, because I still remember it so many years later. I'm truly honored and privileged to be living in this great country where we all have the same rights and the same freedoms.
MC: I'm guessing you probably haven't had an opportunity to go back. But would you ever want to?
AK: Since I came here seeking political asylum, I cannot go back as long as this regime is in power. I would love to go and visit my family, but definitely not right now.
MC: Why did you get involved in public service?
AK: I've gotten involved for many reasons. In Iran, as Iranian Jews, we never got involved politically, because of persecution and threats. We didn't have a voice.
I'm not a very public person; I'm very private and traditional. But I see that as elected officials, we make really a huge difference in people's lives, people who don't have a voice. Children, veterans, seniors. Every time I've been helpful, it has made me feel good about what I do. I'm blessed to be able to do something for someone else. I think the joy of giving is sometimes so much greater than receiving.