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OPINION | Trump must not break America’s tradition of immigration

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In 1945, Europe was reeling from the devastation of World War II. Two young Holocaust survivors from Poland, Regina Tondowska and Kalman Epstein, who had survived concentration camps — she at Theresienstadt and he at Auschwitz — met in the Zielsheim Displaced Persons camp near Frankfurt, Germany, fell in love and married. They’d lost their homes, most of their families and faced a bleak future.

Fortunately, for the Epsteins, President Harry Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward displaced persons. On Dec. 22, 1945, he issued Directive 225, an executive order that became known as the “Truman Directive.” It enabled nearly 23,000 displaced persons to enter the United States between the end of 1945 and 1947. Truman said, “This period of unspeakable human distress is not the time for us to close or to narrow our gates.” In 1948, Congress followed suit, creating the Displaced Person and Refugee Act, paving the way for 400,000 displaced persons to arrive by 1952 and establishing “refugee” as a legal term in American immigration law and practice.

{mosads}The Epsteins, whose story is told in a soon-to-open Tenement Museum exhibit called “Under One Roof,” arrived in New York Harbor aboard the Marine Perch on April 22, 1947, two days before Kalman’s 39th birthday. Truman’s actions not only allowed these Holocaust survivors a chance at a new life but also inaugurated a bipartisan tradition of presidents using executive orders to admit people to the United States.


In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order for those fleeing the Cuban Revolution allowing one million people to enter the United States. In 1975, President Gerald Ford did the same for refugees from the Vietnam War, enabling 360,000 people to come here. And in 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued an order allowing 80,000 Chinese facing the post-Tiananmen Square repression to come to the America. In 2012, President Barack Obama, issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) directive, allowing children brought to the country illegally to remain here, continuing a nearly 70-year old tradition of the use of executive power to open America’s doors to immigrants and refugees.

This all changed in 2017. On Jan. 27, President Trump issued an executive order that suspended for 90 days the entry of certain aliens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including refugees fleeing war-torn nations like Syria and Yemen. When this ban was stayed, he followed up with a revised one on March 6 which remains in effect today. In so doing he broke with bipartisan precedent by using executive power to exclude, not include, immigrants and refugees. This week, he continued to further break with that tradition of providing relief by rescinding President Obama’s DACA executive order and thereby placing 800,000 young people at risk for deportation and possibly tearing tens of thousands of families asunder.

What will be the costs of these precedent-breaking moves by President Trump? Counterfactual history is always tricky, as saying what might have happened if history had taken a different course is at best an educated guess. But if we take the Epsteins as a case study, the loss from the Muslim “ban” and the rescission of DACA will be ours as a nation. Regina and Kalman worked in the garment industry and ultimately became small business owners running their own retail clothing store. They had their first of their two daughters, Bella, in 1948. Bella became a nurse and a mother to three children, who became doctors and nurses in turn. Today, she lives in Florida. Had Truman not issued Directive 225, the Epsteins would never have been admitted to America, and their descendants would not have gone on to be the productive citizens they are today.

If history teaches us anything, it is that America is made stronger by inclusion, not exclusion. By using executive power in the opposite manner to which it was used by his predecessors, both Democrat and Republican, President Trump is changing the course of history by setting us on a new path, one whose costs are impossible to foretell. But if there is a lesson to be found in the story of the Epsteins, it is that we, the American people, will be the ones who lose out as a result.

Kevin Jennings is president of the Tenement Museum, a cultural and educational institution established in New York City in 1988. He served as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.

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

Tags Barack Obama deferred action for childhood arrivals Donald Trump Harry Truman history Holocaust Immigration United States

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