In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, more than half of the country’s governors announced that they would not permit Syrian refugees to be resettled in their states. Most of the Republican presidential candidates echoed their claims, calling for a complete halt in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. They’re arguing that terrorists could be resettled along with bonafide refugees—citing the safety of their own populations as their first concern—and are questioning whether the process used in approving refugees for resettlement was sufficiently rigorous to screen out those posing security threats. Presidential candidate and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey went as far to say that he wouldn’t even accept a 3-year-old orphan—a particularly callous remark in the context of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy whose photo captured so effectively the desperation of many Syrian refugees.
The governors and candidates cited concerns that were reminiscent of the darkest days in U.S. refugee policy—the period leading up to and during World War II—when the country failed to take meaningful action to save the lives of refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. In February 1938, Democratic Sen. Robert F. Wagner of New York and Republican Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bipartisan joint resolution to authorize granting 10,000 immigrant visas to refugee children 14 years of age or under who resided in Germany or German-annexed territories. Under the terms of the legislation, the children were to be admitted outside the immigration quotas then in effect for Germany and the other affected countries. The legislation was defeated after acrimonious debate. In May of 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Cuba, with more than 900 German Jews on board. At least one passenger had been in the Dachau concentration camp, imprisoned during on Kristallnacht. To the misfortune of the St. Louis passengers, a generally positive view of refugees was shifting in Cuba, which refused them entry. So the captain of the St. Louis headed for U.S. territorial waters, hopeful the United States would accept the refugees on a humanitarian basis. Those hopes were dashed, however, and the ship returned to Europe. Only about half survived the Holocaust.
Many of those who opposed admitting refugees then cited security concerns similar to those expressed today. A representative of the American Legion stated in hearings on the Wagner-Rogers bill, “…our duty to our own citizens under the present distressing circumstances compels consideration even to the exclusion of those in foreign countries, however sympathetic we may be toward them in their present plight.” Another stated, “These refugees have a heritage of hate. They could never become loyal Americans. Let us not be maudlin in our sympathies, as charity begins at home. We must protect our own children.” Others feared that the enemies of the United States would use this special legislation to bring a “fifth column” of youngsters who had not, in fact, been subject to persecution, but who were really committed to an authoritarian, antidemocratic ideology. An element of anti-Semitism was clearly at work, as is clear when reading through the legislative debate. But, as is the case today, so too were economic concerns. The country was still reeling from an economic crisis, moving one witness to note: “These children would soon compete with American youth for jobs in this country, one-third of our unemployed being under 25 years of age.”
With the liberation of the Nazi death camps in 1945, the ramifications of restrictive refugee policies became clear and the modern refugee system was born. Although only a small fraction of the world’s refugees are resettled, moving them to safe countries has been a key provision for protecting those who would face persecution if returned to their home countries. Today, those chosen for resettlement go through extensive background checks before they are admitted. I have interviewed refugees in Jordan who had been waiting for years to clear all of the security hurdles. No visitor to the United States is more extensively screened than refugees.
Throughout the decades since the end of World War II, the United States has been the pre-eminent leader in resettlement. Every U.S. president, regardless of party, has spoken eloquently in support of refugee resettlement and large, bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress have agreed. It would be unfortunate if we as a country returned to the fears and prejudices of the past, which are as unfounded today as they were then.
Susan F. Martin is the Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration at Georgetown University.