Refugees, Immigrants, and U.S. Immigration Policy

March 3, 2024
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A cartoon lambasting the turning back of the MS St. Louis, many of whose refuge-seeking passengers perished upon their return to Europe. By Fred Packer, in the New York Daily Mirror, June 6, 1939.

In early June of 1939, passengers on the St. Louis longingly stared at the lights of Miami as their ship dropped anchor four miles off the coast of Florida. While the boat was en route to Havana, the Cuban government had canceled the transit visas of the more than 900 refugees aboard who fled Nazi Germany and of whom some 700 were awaiting immigration to the US. The tantalizing lights of Miami might as well have been the moon, which shone on the doomed ship for four nights as several governments were lobbied to grant the refugees asylum. Desperate, the passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the ship, hoping he would intervene on their behalf with an executive order granting them entry to the United States. Roosevelt did not respond. The State Department callously informed the distraught passengers that they must obey protocol: first, they must be put on a waiting list, then they could apply for an immigration visa, and only after being approved would they be admitted. The St. Louis departed American waters under naval and aircraft escort on the 7th of June, bound for “Germany with all the hospitality of its concentration camps” to “welcome these unfortunates home,” according to a New York Times editorial the following day.{1} Though the plight of the “refugees,” as they were called in American newspapers, was clear, the process of applying for American citizenship was still referred to as immigration.{2} In other words, there was no special status for immigrants who faced imminent danger. 

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, these definitions and legal statuses began to shift. Leading up to World War II, the United States had restrictive immigration legislation in place that favored Northern and Western Europeans while discouraging Asian, Jewish, Italian, Slavic, and other groups. While a mere 180,000-220,000 Europeans (the majority of whom were Jewish) were admitted to the United States during the Nazi regime (1933-1945),  hundreds of thousands of other European Jews were denied immigration visas during this period, and many more applications were snarled in European and American bureaucracy. Over these years, the US admitted the fewest number of immigrants since the 1820s.{3} After World War II, polls revealed that only 5% of the public supported allowing more European refugees into the country.{4}

While the passengers aboard the St. Louis had no hope of receiving immigration visas in anything resembling a timely fashion, they were sadly not unique in that plight. The saga of Anne Frank’s family and their application process makes that painfully clear. In 1938, Otto Frank and his family, having already fled in 1934 from Germany to the Netherlands, applied for American immigration visas. At the same time that the St. Louis was turned away from American shores in June of 1939, the Franks were still waiting in the Netherlands for their visas. In May of 1941, when the Germans bombed Rotterdam upon their occupation of the Netherlands, the Frank family’s applications – still unprocessed – were destroyed. The Franks were ultimately deported to Auschwitz in 1944. 

The desperate telegram from the St. Louis to Roosevelt likely came as no surprise to him. He had been mulling over the plight of Jewish refugees and the rising threat of the Nazi regime for quite some time. Exactly a year before he received the telegram from the St. Louis passengers, Roosevelt had written to the American ambassador in Venezuela about a possible solution to the backlog of people desperately seeking asylum in the United States: to settle the refugees in a rich plateau in Venezuela. To Roosevelt’s mind, it was an elegant solution that benefitted all parties. The refugees would have a haven, the Venezuelans would develop their country, and the American people, fearful of their job security, would not be inundated with competition. And this suited Roosevelt, who was up for reelection in 1940.

Even though the Venezuela scheme came to nothing, Roosevelt could not be persuaded to intercede on behalf of the refugees aboard the St. Louis and others.  It would be five more years before he was ready to come to the aid of Jewish refugees, but then only to avoid a potential scandal that might threaten his political career. In 1944, Roosevelt’s Jewish Secretary of  Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had compiled a report damningly titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which detailed the obstructionism of the State Department concerning Jewish immigration. It was only then that Roosevelt founded the War Refugee Board. Ultimately, the War Refugee Board saved tens of thousands of predominantly Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. 

Four years later, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, which, at least in name, recognized the particular plight of refugees as opposed to immigrants. However, the criterion for qualifying as a displaced person was designed to disqualify most of the Jewish refugees: people who arrived at Displaced Persons camps after December 22, 1945 were ineligible to immigrate to the United States. The last concentration camps were liberated in April of 1945, and Displaced Persons camps were in operation until 1952. 

By this time, America had a new President with different ideas that he was not afraid to express. President Harry S. Truman lambasted the bill’s cutoff date, “It is inexplicable, except upon the abhorrent ground of intolerance, that this date should have been chosen instead of April 21, 1947, the date on which General Clay closed the displaced persons camps to further admissions.”{5} President Truman saw America’s ability to resettle displaced people as a moral imperative: he vocally opposed the Displaced Persons Act, claiming that it “discriminates in a callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.” The December 1945 cutoff date was a mechanism “by which more than 90 percent of the remaining Jewish displaced persons are definitely excluded. Even the eligible 10 percent are beset by numerous additional restrictions written into the bill.”{6} Despite finding more fault than favor in the Displaced Persons Act, Truman signed the bill and continued to battle Congress over the matter for another two years. In 1950, Congress finally removed the December 1945 cutoff date that had kept 200,000 refugees from rightfully immigrating to the United States. 

Leaders like Truman, who recognized that large-scale foreign conflicts necessitate a different and more timely approach to immigration, paved the way for reforming that legislation by articulating a vision for American immigration policy. But Truman was not content with merely setting a moral example through words alone. Continuing to fight Congress on the sleight-of-hand that kept refugees out who were legally eligible to immigrate to the United States brought real change to the refugees in Truman’s time, and impacted the status of refugees who came after. The process took nearly another half century before refugees were officially defined in the 1980 Refugee Act, in the wake of the humanitarian crisis of the war in Vietnam.


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