Closing the Borders to Refugees: Wrong in the 1930s, and Wrong Today

In July 1938—three years after the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Jews of German citizenship, deprived them of most political rights, and left hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking international refuge—Fortune magazine asked Americans, “What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come to the U.S.?” Shamefully, more than two thirds said we should keep the refugees out.

In November 1938, Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) left windows of Jewish homes and businesses in Germany shattered, synagogues destroyed, 91 Jews murdered, 26,000 deported to concentration camps and hundreds of thousands of Jews now desperate to flee Germany.  With news of Kristallnacht as the backdrop, in January 1939 another poll asked whether the U.S. government should permit “10,000 refugee children from Germany—most of them Jewish—to be taken care of in American homes.” An astounding and shameful 61 percent said no.

In May of 1939 the St. Louis, carrying 937 German refugees—mostly Jews fleeing the Third Reich—set sail for Cuba. Most had applied for U.S. visas. Turned away from Cuba, as the St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that the passengers could see the lights from Miami, they appealed to President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor. With public opinion opposed to lifting the stringent immigration quotas or to make an exception for the ship’s passengers, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Almost a quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

Today, the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Almost 60 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. The war in Syria, fueled by the unparalleled brutality of ISIS, is largely responsible for the spike. And once more—shamefully—there is a push for the United States to turn a blind eye to the suffering of refugees and shut our doors to those in need.

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris last week, the response has been calls to reject Syrian refugees—the very same people fleeing ISIS’s brutality. More than half of U.S. governors have either said that their state will not accept Syrian refugees or have called on the president to seal the borders to those fleeing Syria. Mirroring the public opinion polls of 1939, when asked whether he would even admit young orphaned children from Syria, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said, “I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States.”

Many will say that today’s refugee crisis is not comparable to that of the 1930s and 1940s. They will say that Jews in the 1930s were innocent victims, but what we take for granted today only became apparent in hindsight. “Of all the groups in the 20th Century, refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as ‘genuine,’ but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy,” described the authors of the 1999 book Refugees in the Age of Genocide. Anti-Semitism, as well as fears of communist infiltration and anarchy, stoked anti-refugee sentiment.

With news that one of the attackers in Paris may have slipped into France with a fake passport amid Syrian refugees, today people claim it is too dangerous to take in Syrian refugees. After Paris, the possibility of further attacks of course raises fear and anxiety, but America has put up high hurdles for refugees seeking to enter the U.S., creating screening processes that are unparalleled for any other entry method.

Refugees must first apply for entrance to the U.S. at an American embassy or through the United Nations.  If they pass that screening, the Department of State conducts an investigation into their background and identity. The FBI checks their fingerprints and photographs, officials from the Department of Homeland Security conduct in-person interviews, and both American and international intelligence agencies conduct further investigations. Every refugee must undergo a thorough medical exam. Refugee status is the single most difficult way to enter the United States.

The American screening process for refugees works. Of the millions of refugees admitted to the United States since 1980, and the hundreds of thousands admitted since 9/11, not a single one has committed an act of terrorism here. Unlike European countries, the U.S. has the luxury of admitting refugees only after their applications and background screenings are complete—often after a three year process. It is important to note that the attacker who may have slipped into France with refugees was not himself a refugee.  He had never applied through official channels, cleared stringent international background checks, or been granted refugee status. He was a terrorist with a fake passport, not a refugee.

Our hearts still heavy with the horrendous attacks in Paris, Beirut, and against a Russian plane, the solution cannot be to send those fleeing that same brutality back into the hands of ISIS. Less than a century ago, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and hatred shut international doors in the faces of those fleeing Nazi Germany. The world cannot afford to make that mistake again.