The American tradition of refusing refugees

January 31, 2017

The U.S. government has a long record of slamming the door on immigrants and refugees. Annie Levin recounts an especially horrifying chapter of that history.

ON JANUARY 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban all travel to the U.S. by the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.

But it wasn't just the coincidence of dates that had people drawing connections between what Trump is doing today and the policies of the U.S. government that blocked Jewish refugees from finding sanctuary during the Second World War.

The fact that Trump issued his ban against Muslims--which is what his executive order amounts to, despite his feeble denials--on International Holocaust Remembrance Day has deep symbolism for their side and for ours.

On the same day as he signed the executive order, Trump issued a generic statement about the Holocaust that deliberately did not mention the Jews--an echo of fascist Holocaust deniers who believe too much "emphasis" is placed on the Jews as specific victims of the Nazi genocide. The statement's refusal to mention Jews has been defended by spokespeople for the administration.

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939
Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939

Meanwhile, Trump's ban takes place during the worst refugee crisis in world history--one that is in large part a consequence of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and around the world.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a historically unprecedented 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced--one in every 113 people on earth. Just three countries--Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia--account for half of the world's refugees.

As tens of thousands of activists flooded into the streets and into airports to protest the Trump administration ban on refugees and Muslim immigrants, a popular sign referenced the famous statement of Pastor Martin Niemoller, which begins: "First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Socialist."

Only today's version goes: "First, they came for the Muslims...and we say not this time motherfucker!"

DURING THE Second World War, the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt pursued a deliberate and systematic policy of excluding Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

During the time that the U.S. was at war with Germany, a mere 21,000 Jewish refugees were allowed into the country--just 10 percent of the numbers legally permitted to emigrate under quotas existing at the time.

Just as today, refugees applying for visas were put through a maze of forms and regulations, and later recalled being asked such questions as, "Are you Jewish by race and faith? Would you call yourself a socialist? Did the Social Democratic Party want to change the government?"

The voyage of a ship called the St. Louis became one of the most notorious symbols of Roosevelt's criminal indifference. On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in Havana with 936 passengers fleeing Nazi violence and repression. The U.S.-backed Cuban government decided not to admit them and handed the matter over to the U.S. State Department.

The refugees were docked for weeks just a few miles from the ports of Miami, waiting to hear FDR's decision on their fate. Roosevelt denied them entry and sent them back to Europe, where 259 passengers would die in Nazi concentration camps.

Just as politicians today claim that loosening immigration controls would let Muslim "terrorists" into the U.S., during the Second World War, the Roosevelt administration barred refugees on the grounds that Nazi spies could hide among the thousands of Jews seeking refuge.

The Steven Bannon of the Roosevelt administration was the infamous Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, an open anti-Semite and admirer of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. In a June 1940 internal memo, Long wrote:

We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.

In 1939, just before the St. Louis crisis, Congress defeated the Wagner-Rogers bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children into the U.S. Some 1,400 U.S. families had even volunteered to adopt Jewish children if the bill passed.

Typical of the anti-Semitism that infused the debate, the wife of the U.S. Immigration Commissioner testified to Congress that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

Roosevelt himself refused to take a public position on the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which effectively allowed the legislation to die. As one historian explained, "Roosevelt feared the antagonism of Congress, for at that very moment he was seeking half a billion dollars from an isolationist Congress to expand the Air Corps and to construct Naval bases. The president's priority clearly went to defense."

THE OBSCENE reality was that for the Allied powers, the frightening scenario wasn't the extermination of European Jews, but the prospect of taking responsibility for thousands of Jewish refugees. A State Department official named Robert C. Alexander was shockingly open about this, criticizing rescue proposals that would "take the burden and the curse off Hitler."

In May 1943, Sweden presented the Allies with a plan under which it would arrange for the safe transfer of 20,000 Jewish children from Germany to Sweden, and provide housing for them for the duration of the war. It only asked that Britain and the U.S. share the cost of food and medicine, and permit supplies to go through the naval blockade.

After five months of silence, the U.S. responded that it did not want to antagonize the Germans by limiting the rescue to Jewish children, and the plans were scrapped.

In another incident that has a terrible resonance with the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean today, a ship called the Sturma picked up 769 Jewish refugees from the Romanian port of Constanza. Overloaded, it began to sink near Turkey.

Turkey refused to admit the refugees unless Britain issued them all certificates. Britain refused, and the Sturma sank six miles off the shores of Turkey. As the vessel sank, passengers held up a banner that read "Save us."

In 1943, a group of concerned U.S. Treasury Department officials authored a 17-page document titled "The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews." The document directly accused the Roosevelt Administration:

Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German-controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.

Activists today are refusing to let this terrible history repeat be forgotten. A new generation is learning the lessons of history as we demand that the borders be opened and sanctuary provided to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Never Again!

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