Home > Uncategorized > Where Immigration Restrictionism Has Led – posted 1/27/2019

Where Immigration Restrictionism Has Led – posted 1/27/2019

Those who chant “build the wall” and who favor highly restrictive immigration policy need a history lesson. America has had experience with imposing extremely restrictive immigration quotas. In the period before and during World War II, extreme immigration restrictionism held sway.

The results speak volumes: the restrictive quotas were an unmitigated disaster.

There are some clear parallels between the pre-World War II period and our own time. Because of violence and the threat of persecution, unprecedented numbers became refugees. Americans in the 1930’s and early 1940’s worried refugees would take their jobs. The fear was that new immigrants would compete with low-skilled workers and would drive down wages. High unemployment during the Depression reinforced that fear.

Also, some Americans saw immigrants as threatening the national culture because the immigrants were allegedly not assimilating. Proponents of the 1924 Immigration Act favored Northern Europeans over Jews, Catholics and Italians.

Even before World War II, laws from the 1920’s imposed narrow and specific limits on the number who could immigrate to the United States in any given year. The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially Jews. The law also effectively prohibited all Asians from immigrating to America.

Strong currents of nativism led many lawmakers to line up on the immigration restrictionist side. America Firsters of that time saw immigrants as representing a threat to the nation’s well-being.

How this played out for Jews seeking relief from Hitler and the Nazis is an object lesson. While people can rightly point to Nazi antisemitism and the Nazis’ accompanying violence, the sad reality is that it was the American unwillingness to offer refuge that was a central cause of the poor response to the Nazis’ monstrous crimes.

Leading up to World War II and during the war, the American State Department (and the FDR Administration) had no intention of resettling large numbers of European Jews in the United States. In fact, the State Department feared Hitler might release tens of thousands of Jews into Allied hands.

The U.S. government under FDR never developed any contingency plan for large scale Jewish immigration nor did they ever seriously get behind rescue options, even after 1942 when the Nazi extermination plan became widely known.

U.S. government officials also feared German refugees could be spies and they worried such immigrants could threaten national security.

A dark truth is that the United States could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis but the immigration restrictionists and their supporters prevented it. Anti-immigrant and antisemitic attitudes were widespread.

In February 1939, two members of Congress, Senator Robert Wagner,a Democrat from New York, and Representative Edith Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts, introduced a bill to allow an additional 20,000 German Jewish children above the allowed quota to immigrate to the United States.

The bill’s opponents took an America First approach to rejecting refugees. The argument made by opponents was that America should focus on helping its own needy citizens, rather than taking in anyone new. The bill never even made it to a vote in Congress. It did not get out of committee.

A Gallup poll from January 1939 asked if Americans would support bringing even 10,000 German refugee children into the United States. Public opinion ran 2:1 against. While polls were less rigorous in those days, there is little reason to doubt its accuracy.

For those who might think knowledge of the Nazi crimes against the Jews was not sufficiently publicized, I would point out that Kristallnacht happened in November 1938. Kristallnacht was a pogrom in which 267 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were destroyed or damaged, along with vandalism of 7,000 Jewish businesses. The Nazis arrested 30,000 Jewish men and put them in concentration camps. The Nazis also ransacked Jewish homes, hospitals and schools.

Many newspapers, including the New York Times, reported on Kristallnacht and condemned it. It is a hard argument to say Americans were unaware of the Nazi crimes although many never imagined Nazi persecution would lead to genocide. The sad reality is that Americans remained largely indifferent to the plight of Germany’s Jews.

After Kristallnacht, more Jews fled Germany for survival. Hannah Arendt has described the response to the pre-World War II refugee crisis:

“The refugees were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland, they remained homeless, once they left their state they remained stateless, once they had been deprived of their human rights, they were rightless , the scum of the earth.”

Arendt’s quote speaks directly to our time as well. The view of immigrants she describes could be now. Those who favor the application of international law are demagogued as favoring open borders. Dehumanization of immigrants and a failure to understand the circumstances driving them is the new normal.

After World War II, the United States, in an effort of rectification , advanced asylum law to help people fleeing persecution. There was a desire not to repeat the experience that had befallen Jewish refugees.

Recent experience shows America is backsliding, unlearning the lessons about refugees from World War II. We used to think we had a moral obligation to help people fleeing persecution. Now, on our southern border, our government is repeating the same errors made eighty years ago.

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