Is Trump refugee ban a case of history repeating itself?
© Getty Images

In April 1941, a middle-class Jewish businessman, living in German-occupied Holland, wrote a letter to a prominent friend in the United States, Nathan Straus Jr., the head of the U.S. Housing Authority.

"I am forced to look out for emigration, and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to."   He asked Strauss for help in obtaining U.S. visas for himself and his family.  "Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for.  Our own fate is of less importance."

ADVERTISEMENT

Nathan Straus attempted to use his government connections to help the man and his family obtain visas, but was unsuccessful. The U.S. State Department, in the name of national security, was then in the process of adopting what might be called “extreme vetting” of Jewish refugees that reduced refugee admissions to one-quarter of the available quotas. In 1942, the man took his family into hiding in the upper back rooms of a factory in Amsterdam, where his daughter Anne kept a diary.

 

In 1944, the family was discovered and arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps, where all, save the father, Otto Frank, perished.

The uncomfortable possibility that Anne Frank might have survived the Holocaust (she would be in her 80s today) but for the U.S. wartime barriers to refugees, is worth pondering in connection with President Trump’s revised travel ban affecting six predominantly Muslim countries (under court challenge) and the approaching commemoration of the Holocaust in the U.S. and Israel.

The wartime State Department’s barriers to Jews fleeing the Nazis were a shameful episode in American history and a stain on President Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy. National security purportedly justified the barriers to Jewish refugees but the underlying motivation was xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which peaked in the United States in the early 1940s and found a comfortable home in the State Department.

Referring to one boatload of refugees seeking admission to the United States in 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long commented, “They were all Jewish.  They all had money,” and fought to bar them from entering the United States (only the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt saved them from being sent back to Europe).

Young Christian lawyers in the wartime Treasury Department, outraged by the State Department’s hostility to both admitting Jews and mounting rescue missions Europe to save Jews from the Nazis, wrote a report to FDR stating that, “Even if we took these people [the Jewish refugees] and treated them as prisoners of war, it would be better than letting them die.”

The lesson of World War II was not lost on subsequent administrations, who have dealt more humanely with refugees. In fact, since 1980, the United States has admitted nearly 3 million refugees, which makes us the leading refugee resettlement country.

Like its ill-fated predecessor,  the re-issued travel ban suspends the admission of refugees for four months and, when the suspension ends, caps the number at 50,000, a dramatic reduction. The U.S. was on pace to admit 110,000 refugees in fiscal 2017. The United States had no national security justification in 1941 for erecting barriers to Jewish refugees – and neither does President Trump in cutting back refugee admissions.

The Cato Institute recently calculated that, between 1975 and 2015, the likelihood of an American dying from a terrorist attack by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion (yes, you read that correctly). Yet the odds of persecuted men, women and children, from repressive and strife-ridden countries like Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, entering the United States as refugees, will go down by more than 50 percent.

Today, the underlying agenda is not national security, which the Cato study makes clear is not threatened by refugees, but white nationalism, with a special emphasis on excluding Muslims. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and an architect of the original travel ban, thinks it’s bad for America that, as he claimed, “two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.”

Bannon exaggerated the numbers, but you get the point. Refugees are unwelcome in the United States, the Statute of Liberty notwithstanding, because they do not fit the white nationalist model.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor, and the author most recently of “America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.”  Follow on Twitter, @gregorywallance

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.