The U.S. turned away Jewish refugees in the 1930s—have we learned nothing since? So goes a popular meme circulating among the left and center left in the wake of the Syrian refugee brouhaha. You may have seen it in Vox, the Washington Post, or the Huffington Post (where the article in question was contributed by the CEO of the ADL). If you use Facebook, you’ve almost certainly seen a post about it on your friend’s wall. Usually, it’s accompanied by one or both of these infographics:
US Jul ’38: What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US? pic.twitter.com/7hMfLbXWFE
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 16, 2015
US Jan 20 ’39: Should the US government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany? pic.twitter.com/5cFs5RabQn
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 17, 2015
As Dara Lind at Vox notes, “polling wasn’t yet a science, and it’s possible the public was less anti-refugee than Gallup’s methods indicated.” But the lesson seems clear: by turning away Syrian refugees, we risk repeating one of the most shameful episodes of our history.
The plight of Jews who were turned away on the eve of or even during the Holocaust (Lind points to the M.S. St. Louis) really is one of the ugliest, most heartbreaking stories that anyone who studies U.S. immigration history comes across. But the picture is more complicated than this narrative suggests, and the conclusions we should draw from it are perhaps different than those being advanced memetically across the internet right now. While there is a good moral case—a case we have made here ourselves—to bring in Syrian refugees, the left’s big push to do so in the wake of Paris was both ill-timed and in bad faith. A sober look at both U.S. history and our current politics suggests that, instead of damning the benighted attitudes of our supposedly backward fellow-citizens, our immigration advocates need to take a good hard look in the mirror. Nobody is listening to the pro-immigration side now for similar reasons that nobody listened to them then.
In the Thirties, as Ishaan Tharoor notes in the above-mentioned Washington Post article, the mood was more anti-immigrant than anti-Semitic:
[R]espondents may not necessarily have had a particular bias against Jewish refugees. A separate portion of Gallup respondents were asked a nearly identical question which did not describe refugees as Jewish. Support for accepting refugees was slightly lower than when they were described as mostly Jewish.
Although anti-Semitism wasn’t the only force at work, that fact points to an even greater human tragedy: Europe’s Jews were locked out, and so were the Poles, Czechs, etc. whose nations were about to be invaded by Hitler, caught in a war that killed 40 million, and enslaved for the next half century by the tyrannical Communist regime. The U.S. answer to almost all comers from Eastern Europe—Jewish or otherwise—was the same preceding this bloodbath: no.
As I pointed out in an essay in these pages in August, this was the result of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act that shut down the “Great Wave”—the 1880-1924 period when immigration rates to the U.S. last stood as high as they do now:
[W]hile the Wave had been cresting, other intellectual and social undercurrents had begun circulating in America: a populist nativism, national security concerns (about Eastern European radicals, and after 1917, Communists in particular), and a growing, international movement toward restrictionism. Do any of these conditions sound familiar?
Meanwhile, America’s pro-immigration forces failed to make the case persuasively to preserve the status quo. They were unable to tailor the traditional defenses of liberal American immigration to new political realities, or to develop new narratives defending it instead. The ardent restrictionists built their case, over years of small measures (such as banning convicts) or failed bills (such as a vetoed 1913 bill imposing a literacy test on would-be immigrants). Moderate America began to pay attention. Some were swayed by this, some by that. The 1911 report of the Senate’s Dillingham Commission gave an official stamp of approval to “scientific”, Progressive racist theories (that were in fact no more than gussied-up a priori assumptions). World War I sealed for many the idea of the foreigner as menace. And afterward the United States, struggling economically, was anticipating another wave of immigration from Europe that it wanted no part of. Slowly, a restrictionist coalition assembled that would prove unstoppable.
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act. It set national-origin quotas for immigrants from each country at 2 percent of the number of foreign-born persons from that country recorded in the U.S. during the 1890 census—effectively barring mass immigration from South, Central, and Eastern Europe—and outright barred immigration from Asia. Not at all coincidentally, those were the areas which had fed the Great Wave, but whose populations were considered too poor and too culturally foreign to be assimilable en masse. Furthermore, an overall cap was set on immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere at 150,000 per year. Immigration halved within one year after implementation, and declined more than 90 percent over a decade, from 700,000-plus immigrants in 1924 to 29,400 in 1934.
And at the time, I took note of the fact that seems so salient right now: this held even through the horrors of Hitler. In fact, the history is even worse than Vox has it. Lind tries to paint the revelations of the Holocaust as America’s “lesson learned” moment on refugees: “After the Holocaust, the U.S. decided helping refugees was a moral imperative.” But the only concrete initiatives she points to are international (“[t]he UN set up its office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950, and the Refugee Convention”)—because the U.S. by and large didn’t change its policies. The “golden door” was definitively slammed shut, and remained so even after the Holocaust. After the war, the U.S. let in a few thousand refugees, but nothing like the hundreds of thousands to millions that it had before 1924—and that surely would have come then had they been welcomed. Instead, our policy was to assist abroad in lieu of allowing large-scale refugee intakes at home. (Incidentally, this had a major effect on the creation of Israel: many of the surviving Jews of Europe would have opted to join cousins in New York and Philadelphia had they been welcomed.)
It wasn’t until another generation had passed that we revamped our immigration system with the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act law, and in fits and starts the U.S. really did wind up being exceptionally accepting of refugees in the decades since. But we never returned to pre-1924 levels of immigration from Eastern Europe, and certainly not for the generation affected by the Holocaust.
The pre-war policies were a moral catastrophe, but the blame for it clearly lies with both sides. The pro-immigration caucus totally failed to trim and tailor pre-1924 policies to a point where most Americans found them acceptable; as a result, the door was slammed shut so hard that nothing could pry it back open when it was needed most.
Despite the plaintive wails on the left, the U.S. is not where it was in the thirties—either with regard to refugees (we take in more than anyone in the world) or immigrants (ditto). But there can be no doubt, from looking at this primary season, that sentiment to restrict this is a growing political force. And just when they asked the U.S. public to trust them on an urgent humanitarian request, immigration advocates found they had no trust to bank on—and with good reason. The left has made it abundantly clear for decades it has no plans to seriously police the border, and in fact it regards requests to do so as quasi-racist. That same hostile dismissiveness is in full display in President Obama’s remarks on the Syrian refugee debate, and is similarly hardening stances on the other side.
The lessons of history cut both ways. The left needs to take the thirties—and the present Syrian controversy—as a warning. It must consider how to trim its immigration policies to popular will—or it risks having America’s still rather open door to newcomers slammed shut anew.