Opposition to refugees echoes one of America’s most shameful moments

President Biden’s announcement this week that he will increase the annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for the fiscal year has triggered predictable howls of opposition. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) falsely claimed that “Increasing the refugee admissions cap will put American jobs and safety at risk.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) tweeted, “Democrats are now considering sneaking mass amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants through Congress under the cover of the budget process.”

These statements echo a shameful moment 82 years ago when Congress considered a similar proposal for Jewish children seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. In fact, on May 5, 1939, a joint subcommittee of Congress approved bipartisan legislation to help those children. What happened to the bill is a little-known but repugnant stain on American values. 

In November 1938, the Reich’s official antisemitism took a new turn when violent riots against Jews spread across Germany and Austria. Businesses were destroyed, synagogues burned-down, Jews beaten and murdered. But America had no room for any additional refugees. Immigration law dating back to the 1920s capped visas from Germany at 27,370 — a number that was reached almost instantly at the beginning of each year.

Two members of Congress formed an unlikely political alliance to respond. Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) was a liberal firebrand, Tammany Hall Democrat and FDR loyalist who pushed elements of the New Deal through the Senate. Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) was a conservative Republican who graduated from a Paris finishing school and become a vociferous opponent of New Deal business regulations. In February 1939, they introduced a bill to lift caps on visas from Germany.

Wagner and Rogers crafted the bill to minimize opposition. The quota would be increased by 20,000, but over a two-year period. To address fears about immigrants taking jobs, new visas would be issued only to children under the age of 14. To ensure that no federal funds were used to support the child refugees, all applicants would have to prove that they would not become “charges of the state.” And to minimize antisemitic backlash, the word “Jewish” was excluded from the bill. 

With those conditions, who could oppose increasing the cap on refugees from children imperiled by Hitler’s Reich? Initially, no one — publicly, at least. The bill was supported by the American Federation of Labor, the Federal Council of Churches, former Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon, former Republican Governor Robert La Follete, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and even former Republican First Lady Grace Coolidge, who announced that she and her neighbors in Northampton, Mass., would personally care for 25 of the refugee children.  

On April 20, in room 412 of the Russell Senate Office Building, a joint subcommittee opened hearings on the Wagner-Rogers proposal. That day, 14 witnesses testified in support, and only one against. But as debate continued over the next few weeks, opposition was mobilized. Francis Kinnicutt, president of the Allied Patriot Society, testified that immigrants “may be suffering from some disease or insanity” and that “we don’t want to be swamped with immigrants.” J.E. Nieman of the Regular Veterans Association argued: “The bringing of foreigners into the United States is a direct attack against our national defense program. America doesn’t need foreigners.” 

Despite the attacks, the joint subcommittee voted on May 5 to report Wagner-Rodgers to their full respective committees. The opposition became louder and uglier. The very next day, Sen. Robert Reynolds (D-N.C.) strode to a stage at the Hotel Astor in New York and proclaimed opposition to the bill. “Save America for Americans. The danger is from within.” At a Washington cocktail party, Mrs. James H. Houghteling, wife of the commissioner of immigration, remarked that the problem with the bill was “that 20,000 children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

The bill was effectively killed in a feat that only the United States Congress could have pulled off — having it both ways. On June 20 the full Senate Immigration Committee passed Wagner-Rogers but with a not-so-slight catch: 20,000 children would be granted visas, but only as part of the existing quota of 27,370. America would open its doors to them but shut it to most of the Jews still trying to flee Europe. Wagner was so enraged with the amendment that he ended up opposing his own bill.  

We know how tragically this story ends for the vast majority of Jewish children facing persecution, oppression and tyranny in Nazi Germany: 1.5 million perished.

So, when I hear opponents of a modest plan to add 62,500 refugee visas for people facing life-threatening persecution, I think about what happened in May 1939 and the weeks that followed, when Congress failed so catastrophically. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Biden immigration policy Holocaust Joe Biden Nazi Germany Steve Israel Steve Scalise Tom Cotton United States and the Holocaust Wagner–Rogers Bill

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