In July 1938, when polled on their attitudes toward allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US, two-thirds of Americans said we should try to keep them out. Another 18% said it would be okay to accept them, but only if it didn’t mean raising our immigration quotas. Less than five percent said we should encourage them to come.
In January 1939, when asked if the US government should permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany, over 60% of Americans polled said, “No.”
In February 1939, a Congressional bill that would have admitted 20,000 German Jewish children above the existing immigration quota died in committee.
In May 1939, the St. Louis, a transatlantic liner with 937 passengers — almost all Jews fleeing from the Third Reich — was turned away by the United States.
Fears were raised that the Jewish refugees were politically dangerous — Communists, anarchists, potential German agents. There were economic fears about an influx of refugees in the wake of the Depression. And, of course, the very anti-Semitism the refugees were fleeing was fueling the American hostility against them.
This is one of the greatest shames in U.S. history.
Let’s not repeat it.
There are already people rushing to explain why these situations are not the same. There are already people rushing to insist that the Syrian refugees are part of ISIS or Al-Qaeda (“the Jewish refugees are dangerous anarchists and communists!”); that the Syrian refugees won’t be able to assimilate because they have low IQs (seriously?); that the two situations can’t be compared because reasons, or no reason given at all. Of course the situations aren’t identical: no two situations are. But they are damn well similar enough that we should be paying attention.
The Syrian refugees are not ISIS. The Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, and from conditions created by ISIS. Let’s not repeat one of the most shameful mistakes in our history. Let’s not have to explain to our grandchildren why, in one of the greatest humanitarian crises faced by our generation, we let fear and willful ignorance overcome compassion.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.