The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States also denied refuge to Jews fleeing Hitler, fearing they might be Nazis

Jewish refugees are denied landing in Cuba aboard the St. Louis in 1939. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)

The United States is often described as “a nation of immigrants.” That’s certainly true. But a more accurate statement might be that we’re “a nation of immigrants who overcame intense hostility to immigration.” (If you’re really cynical, you might add, ” . . . and then showed hostility to future waves of immigrants.”)

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order halting the admission of Syrian refugees into the United States. He’s also expected to cancel visas from a curiously curated list of majority-Muslim countries. (It doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, for example.) The order would be consistent with Trump’s campaign rhetoric and general fear mongering on the right that Islamic State fighters are posing as refugees to get into the country. For actual Syrian refugees, the policy is exceptionally cruel. Imagine surviving the terrors of the Syrian civil war, only to then be denied asylum because politicians say you’re indistinguishable from the people who were trying to murder you.

It’s worth pointing out again that this isn’t a new story. It is an all-too familiar one. From Smithsonian magazine:

World War II prompted the largest displacement of human beings the world has ever seen—although today’s refugee crisis is starting to approach its unprecedented scale. But even with millions of European Jews displaced from their homes, the United States had a poor track record offering asylum. Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.
Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security . . .
In the court of public opinion, the story of a spy disguised as a refugee was too scandalous to resist. America was months into the largest war the world had ever seen, and in February 1942, Roosevelt had ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans. Every day the headlines announced new Nazi conquests . . .
Immigration restrictions actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened. Wartime measures demanded special scrutiny of anyone with relatives in Nazi territories—even relatives in concentration camps. At a press conference, President Roosevelt repeated the unproven claims from his advisers that some Jewish refugees had been coerced to spy for the Nazis. “Not all of them are voluntary spies,” Roosevelt said. “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
Here and there, skeptics objected. As the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out in her book Beyond Belief, The New Republic portrayed the government’s attitude as “persecuting the refugee.” The Nation didn’t believe that the State Department could “cite a single instance of forced espionage.” But these voices were drowned out in the name of national security.

The article points out that much of this paranoia stemmed from a single story about an alleged refugee who, under intense questioning, admitted to being a Nazi spy. The State Department then used the trials of other spies to sow more bigotry and fear. The Saturday Evening Post published, with help from the State Department, “‘disguised as refugees, Nazi agents have penetrated all over the world, as spies, fifth columnists, propagandists, or secret commercial agents.” That too should sound familiar.

President Trump is turning his focus to immigration on Jan. 25. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Smithsonian quotes a post-war report from one whistleblower: “I am convinced . . . that certain officials in our State Department . . . have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”

It worked. As Ishaan Tharoor noted in The Post in November 2015, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to taking in Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. A 1938 poll found nearly 70 percent felt we should bar them from entering. Just 5 percent thought we should expand immigration quotas to let them in. Tharoor notes that just as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in 2015 that he wouldn’t allow even “3-year-old orphans” into his state, a 1939 poll found that 60 percent of the public opposed taking in 10,000 mostly Jewish children who were fleeing Hitler. (Poll results on the crisis of child migrants from Central American a few years ago were a bit more ambiguous. But most found at least half the country opting for denying them entry.)

And it wasn’t just in the United States. In Canada, 7,000 Jewish refugees were imprisoned with Nazis in the same detention camps — for three years. Jewish refugees to New Zealand were also imprisoned with Nazis. Government officials there saw time in a concentration camp not as proof that Jews weren’t working for Germany, but as a possibility that they had been brainwashed or blackmailed.

But not all countries showed such hostility. Here’s Tharooor in September 2015, with one particularly poignant example:

The Australian journalist Tom Gara, now an editor at Buzzfeed News, tweeted an account on Tuesday of his Hungarian Jewish grandfather’s escape from his war-torn homeland in May 1940. After an arduous five-month journey, he arrived at the faraway port of Adelaide. One of his places of sanctuary along the way: Aleppo, Syria.

Of course, it’s always possible that  the fears about Jewish refugees could have been wrong, while fears about Syrian refugees are more legitimate. But the numbers suggest otherwise. Post fact checker Michelle Ye Hee Lee has pointed out that according to the State Department, of the 785,000 refugees admitted to the United States since the September 11 attacks, about a dozen “have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S.”

That’s a tiny fraction — less than two one thousandths of one percent. And even that is assuming all of them were guilty, which is far from given in such cases. But even assuming guilt, and assuming each of those dozen or so killed five Americans (they didn’t — nearly all were arrested before carrying out an attack), the list of things that could kill you every day is infinitely longer than your risk of being killed by a terrorist who came to the United States as a refugee. You still engage in those activities — driving a car, swimming in a pool, climbing a ladder — because you value what you get from those activities more than you fear the risk. If we at all value our image as a nation that opens its doors to people fleeing oppression — if we value it even a little — taking in a lot of them is more than worth the risk.

It is not there were zero incidents in which Nazi spies successfully gained entry to the U.S. by posing as Jewish refugees. Clearly it happened. Similarly, there have been a handful of cases in which Islamic State fighters have made their way to the West through the process of admitting refugees. The lesson here, both then and now, is that our fear of such incidents is wholly disproportionate to the humanitarian crisis. I doubt you’d find many historians who would argue that had the United States taken in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, likely saving their lives, the clandestine Nazis among their ranks would have cost us the war. I doubt you’d find any that would even take that argument seriously.

I’d also wager that most Americans would look back at our World War II policy toward Jewish refugees as a moral failing. It was. We just don’t seem to have learned much from it.