History Teaches Us to Be Generous in a Refugee Crisis

Anyone who knows the shameful history of the U.S. response to Jewish refugees before World War II wants to avoid repeating it. As the Nazi genocide progressed, the United States turned its back on the Jews, infamously forcing the St. Louis, a ship with more than 900 German-Jewish refugee passengers, to sail back to Europe in June 1939 after it was refused entry to Cuba, rather than issuing visas to the refugees. President Franklin Roosevelt could have intervened through executive action, but chose not to in the face of the public’s anti-Semitism, worries about competition for scarce jobs, and isolationism. More than 250 of the St. Louis’s passengers eventually died in the Holocaust.

At the same time, Congress refused to take steps to save Jewish children who were fleeing Nazi violence and persecution. Bills introduced in the House and Senate to admit 20,000 German-Jewish children beyond the existing quotas were allowed to die in committee.

The United States had no role in the rise of the Nazis, but we are deeply involved in the political instability of Central America. We took sides in a civil war in El Salvador and supported a coup in Honduras. The United States bears a large part of the responsibility for the drug violence and armed conflict in Central America that are driving so many children from their home communities. We are the consumers of the drugs whose sale and transshipment enriches the drug gangs and fuels the drug wars. Without our insatiable consumption of illegal drugs, the drug violence would diminish. Moreover, as Jeff Faux has argued, without our militarization of the region and our billions of dollars of support for violent, right-wing governments and militias, large parts of the population would not live in terror. And finally, without our trade policies, which have disrupted the Central American economies and displaced tens of thousands of agricultural workers, there would be less of an economic incentive to immigrate to the United States.

So, as we face the tens of thousands of migrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, our moral responsibility to them is at least as great as it was to the Jews on whom we turned our backs 75 years ago. We will be equally ashamed if we look back years from now and discover that thousands of these children have been kidnapped, murdered, or conscripted by drug gangs or militias in their home countries when we could have given them shelter and protection.

Yes, our economy is troubled, and millions of Americans are struggling despite our extraordinary national income and wealth. Unemployment is still high, but it is far less than it was in 1939, and the economy is far stronger than it was then, after ten years of the Great Depression. In economic terms, we can afford to treat the children at our borders with compassion. In moral terms, can we afford not to?

Even without the emergency supplemental funds President Obama has requested and which Congress is now debating, under existing laws there are a number of actions that the president can take to provide humanitarian relief to these children. He can give them humanitarian parole or have the Department of Homeland Security designate their home countries for a new temporary protected status if they request it. Or he could grant them all asylum under INA 207(b). These actions might be unpopular, just as Roosevelt’s admission of the Jews aboard the St. Louis would have been. And yes, they might encourage more families to send their children to our border, just as giving visas to the Jews aboard the St. Louis would have encouraged more European Jews to show up in our ports in 1939. That would have been a result we would be proud to remember.