The unlikely legislative duo that joined together on immigration

The politics of immigration, now at a fever pitch in Washington, has a long sordid history. Exactly 80 years ago this month, an improbable political duo introduced an emergency immigration bill and ignited a debate about our borders. The circumstances ripple across time, instructing us today.

The legislative alliance in Congress was forged by monstrous events in Europe. Nearly 100,000 Jewish children were trapped in Nazi Germany as violence, poverty, arrests, and deportations intensified. Just five months earlier, in November 1939, the Nazis unleashed pogroms across the Reich.

{mosads}More than 1,000 synagogues were badly damaged or burned, 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted, at least 90 Jews were killed, and about 30,000 Jewish males between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested over two days. To accommodate so many new prisoners, the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen were expanded. For Jews in the Reich, time was running out. While other countries were admitting additional refugees, the United States had effectively reached its annual quota of 27,300 for all immigrants from Germany and Austria.

Republican Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts and Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York made a rescue attempt from Capitol Hill. Rogers came from a prosperous New England lineage, graduated from a finishing school in Paris, and was a critic of President Franklin Roosevelt. Wagner was a former Tammany Hall ward heeler who immigrated to the United States from Prussia as a child and was a key Roosevelt ally. One liked to wear an orchid or gardenia on her shoulder. The other stuffed a loosely folded handkerchief in his breast pocket.

In February 1939, Rogers and Wagner introduced legislation to provide 20,000 emergency visas above the existing quota over a period of two years, restricted to German children below the age of 14. Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, whose son I later served with in Congress, authored a similar bill. The initial response was favorable. In April 1939, joint House and Senate subcommittees considered the refugee bill in what is now Room 418 of the Russell Senate Office Building. For the first three days, the testimony supporting the bill was nearly unanimous.

Elected officials, clergy, activists, bureaucrats, labor leaders, and even actress Helen Hayes, all endorsed the bill. Former President Herbert Hoover, whose previous administration had strongly opposed relaxation of immigration quotas, sent a message proclaiming his support for the bill. Americans who could not make it to Capitol Hill flooded Congress with supportive letters and telegrams. Dozens of organizations sent in resolutions and declarations endorsing the bill, all entered in the official record. Scores of favorable newspaper editorials were also included.

Then, opponents of the bill turned the tide. The arguments will sound familiar. The Regular Veterans Associations wrote to the subcommittees, “America does not need the foreigners. We have no room for them and their progeny. We have our own disabled, our own homeless, our own sick and hungry, our own uneducated, our own slums and sharecroppers, our own problems, chief of all of which is to keep America for Americans.”

A representative of the Sons of America testified to lawmakers, “I am for America, first, last, and forever. America first.” The widow of a World War I veteran testified, “We do not want this country to become a dumping ground for Europe.” She continued her case against the bill, “I think we should consider Americans first. Let us keep America for Americans.”

The rhetoric we hear today that refugees will bring crime, disease, and cheap labor that will displace jobs echoed ominously in the hearing. The opposition was too much to overcome for the Massachusetts Republican and the New York Democrat. In June 1939, the committee effectively killed the bill by authorizing the 20,000 emergency visas but counting them against the existing quota. Even Wagner had opposed his own measure.

It was nearly a year later when Democratic Senator Lewis Schwellenbach of Washington, who had become labor secretary for Franklin Roosevelt, wrote, “I know how easy it is for political self seekers to condemn aliens. It is perhaps the best vote getting argument. The politician can beat his breast and proclaim loyalty to America.” Schwellenbach appeared to have been correct back then, and 80 years later, his words still ring true today.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is the incoming director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. He is on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Americans Congress Government Immigration John Dingell Steve Israel

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Immigration News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video