The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration’s refugee and border policies cruelly ignore the lessons of the past

Compassion must guide how we treat families fleeing from violence.

Nayela Vega, 7, rests next to her parents, Evelyn Vega and Elmer Zelaya Gomez, under a tarp that is attached to the bars on the edge of the San Ysidro border crossing on May 1 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The news that border authorities are separating parents from children who arrive at the American border — and that some of these children, along with those who arrived unaccompanied, have gone missing, possibly victimized by human traffickers or turned into illegal child laborers — has enraged many Americans, leading to a flood of social media activity condemning the immorality of the practice.

Yet this isn’t the first time the United States has separated children from their parents. In the early 1940s, the United States Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM) focused on separating refugee children from their parents as a last resort to save them from the Holocaust. This stands in stark contrast to today, when separation is being used as a punishment for parents seeking safety for their families. Rather than being guided by the principles that drove the USCOM effort, such as compassion, the Trump Administration is instead acting with cruelty — a path that threatens horrific consequences like those USCOM tried to prevent.

In 1941 and 1942, American aid workers in southern France began separating Jewish children from their parents. The decision was not made lightly. One American wrote, “Here were we, perfect strangers having put in our charge the dearest thing a mother and a father own, just because we represented that country which has always stood for liberty, and equality, and the rights of the individual … which was now opening its homes as haven for the young children of the coming generation in Europe.”

Had the United States allowed more immigrants to enter the country in the 1930s, these forced separations might not have been necessary. But for the first five years of Nazi rule, as persecution grew in Germany, the State Department did not come close to filling the German quota set by a 1924 immigration law thanks in part to public sentiment in an isolationist, Depression-era America focused on economic recovery. By the time the MS St. Louis sailed in June 1939, the first year the German quota was filled, more than 300,000 people were on the waiting list for 27,370 yearly quota slots.

The quota system did not make exceptions for refugees (save for exemption from a literacy test), and had no exceptions for children. Those fleeing persecution had to procure the same paperwork, wait in the same lines and endure the same bureaucracy as in ordinary times. In 1939, the bipartisan, bicameral Wagner-Rogers Bill proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children outside of the quota. But it never made it out of congressional committee. Immigration restrictionists argued that “Europe’s children are Europe’s problem,” and other lawmakers were hesitant to separate parents from their children.

But after World War II began and the Nazis invaded Western Europe, Americans changed their minds. Many of the supporters of the failed Wagner-Rogers bill founded USCOM, a private organization which worked closely with the U.S. government to assist children fleeing violence. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt even served as the organization’s honorary chairwoman.

The focus initially was on temporary immigration. USCOM first helped British children escape the Blitz, placing them with foster families and guaranteeing the children would be returned to Europe after the war. The American people largely welcomed these non-Jewish refugees. But after a German U-boat attacked and sank the Canada-bound City of Benares, killing 77 British refugee children, this plan quickly fizzled.

Recognizing that there were still children in need, USCOM shifted its focus to Nazi-collaborationist Vichy France. The idea of a more permanent separation took shape as a way to rescue some of the thousands of “enemy aliens” who were interned in concentration camps — mainly Jewish families who had fled Nazi-occupied territory and Spanish republicans who had escaped after losing the Spanish Civil War. These camps were horrific places full of mud and disease, indefinite holding pens, the first step in a journey that for many ended in deportation to Nazi-occupied Poland.

As Quaker aid worker Marjorie McClelland wrote at the time, aid workers had to travel to places of “bleak desolation” and ask themselves “how a child could possibly grow and flourish in such an environment.” This immigration, McClelland and her colleagues knew, would have to be permanent. Separation from their families offered the only hope that these children would find “love, security, and an opportunity to put their roots down.”

At least 300 USCOM children, most of them Jewish, arrived in the United States in 1941 and 1942, and were placed with distant relatives or foster families. Social workers with the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau monitored each child, relationships that often lasted for years. Representatives of the National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS, local refugee groups and the American Friends Service Committee — all of whom still advocate for child refugees today — tracked the children, aiding foster families with anything they might need to make the traumatic transition as smooth as possible.

The child refugees learned English, attended American schools and grew to be valuable additions to the United States. Some of the older children served in the U.S. Army, liberating the continent they had narrowly escaped. Most never reunited with their parents, many of whom were deported to Nazi-occupied Poland and murdered in Auschwitz.

The tragedy of the Holocaust transformed how the world responded to refugee crises in hope that never again would such violence and separation devastate families undergoing persecution. In 1967, the United Nations enacted a Refugee Protocol (which the United States signed in 1968), which stipulated that refugees fleeing violence have the right to asylum. In 1980, the United States itself enacted the Refugee Resettlement Act, which codified America’s commitment to carrying out its responsibilities under the UN protocol.

And yet, we are not currently doing so. Instead, President Trump is doing everything possible to keep entire families — parents and children — in areas of violence and danger rather than to offer haven to those who qualify as legitimate refugees. And now, he is even separating families as a punishment.

The overriding American priority should be admitting refugees from violence-stricken countries, and sooner rather than later — a lesson of the Holocaust that Trump is ignoring. Moreover, he is dismissing the importance of compassion, which as USCOM workers demonstrated should be at the core of refugee policy. Separation today is not necessary. Instead, simply following the policies enacted to avoid another Holocaust would allow families to remain together, safe from violence.

Maxi Weilheimer, after turning his sons over to USCOM workers in 1942, wrote, “So much of joy and of beauty has been destroyed by the hands of man, and the world which God created could be so lovely and so peaceful. We had a family life of rare happiness and contentment — unfortunately it was too short.” In 1941 and 1942, the United States was a haven for some refugee children fleeing persecution. Today, we are the ones causing unnecessary pain.