They left Hamburg on May 13, 1939, and reached Havana 14 days later. The ship’s name was the St. Louis, and it held 937 passengers, most of them Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and hoping, while in Cuba, to be admitted to the United States. But the Cuban authorities barred all but a couple dozen of them, and so the ship sailed on, getting so close to America that passengers could see the lights of Miami. Still, the United States would not admit them, and so the St. Louis returned to Europe where, ultimately, 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust. They were that era’s “dreamers.”
The dreamers of today are different. They are not in a life-or-death situation, and they are not unwelcome in the countries of their birth. Yet once again Washington is showing a mean hostility to immigrants — one so fervently held that it is blind to contradictions. It is willing to be morally wrong as long as it is legally right.
The dreamers of today are the approximately 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The largest number of them were around 3 when they came across the border — which, in case President Trump is reading, is a bit young to be a rapist or even a gang member. (Almost 5 percent were younger than 1.) These onetime kids are now anywhere from 16 to 35. They live all over the country, but the largest concentration is in California, the Los Angeles area, with Texas coming in second. The vast majority came from Mexico, with El Salvador a distant second and Venezuela bringing up the rear. (No one should have to live in Venezuela the way things are going there these days.)
Periodically, Congress makes an attempt to settle the status of these dreamers. (Their status is to be determined by legislation.) Periodically, also, Trump issues a statement either professing sympathy or hostility toward the dreamers. He has vowed to end the program that allows them to remain in this country or promised “to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”
As is often the case with Trump, the victim here is himself. He is torn over the dreamers. Perplexed. Their predicament is a “very difficult thing” for him. “I love these kids. I love kids. I have kids and grandkids.” By now, as you can tell, the hankie is soaked. The president is experiencing a rare bout of empathy. It is a dizzying experience, a kind of emotional vertigo. But he rights himself and later insists that the law is the law. Either make the kids legal or give them the boot.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, as it happens the last president from New York, was anguished over the plight of Europe’s Jews. But in 1939 he had his eye on winning an unprecedented third term. He had told Americans in his 1933 inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but he himself feared American anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment exacerbated by the Depression’s vast unemployment. It took him until 1944 to publicly denounce the murder of Europe’s Jews, and when passengers on the St. Louis cabled him pleading for admittance, he simply did not reply.
Roosevelt had to deal with a xenophobia that was not of his own making and the fear that the war he knew was coming would be characterized as one fought on behalf of Jews. Trump, in contrast, has taken the bellows of his ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric to the embers of American xenophobia and abetted a conflagration. He began his presidential campaign by denigrating Mexicans. “They are not our friend, believe me,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” As recently as last week at his Pennsylvania rally, he mentioned the MS-13 gang on Long Island as if it were the consequence of a lax immigration policy and not an aberration. These are thugs, no doubt about it, but they should not be driving immigration policy.
It remains inconceivable that the Trump administration and a politically timid Congress will round up 700,000 or so otherwise ordinary Americans and deport them to the countries of their birth. In the meantime, though, the dreamers live with appropriate anxiety about their future. They are being held hostage for the wall that Trump wants built — a squalid deal in which human beings are bartered for an unnecessary barrier and, in the process, America sells it soul.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.