The Trump administration’s latest efforts to turn away refugees and asylum seekers are undermining the system of refugee protection built after World War II. That system came about in part because of a horrific choice made by the United States during the war. Motivated largely by anti-Semitism, the United States failed to resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, condemning them to imprisonment and death.
The Trump administration is resurrecting this prewar framework — a racist, exclusionary system that shut out nearly all nonwhite, non-Western European refugees. Once again, desperate people who turn to the United States for help are being forced to return to the deadly circumstances of their home countries.
During World War II, even as the government sought to keep people out, some Americans, including key administrators at historically black colleges and universities, worked to bring people to safety — and their example offers lessons for us today.
As the Nazis took power in Germany, Jews faced immediate danger. Despite the pogroms and concentration camps, however, Jews fleeing Nazi rule couldn’t just come to the United States. For one thing, they had to prove they would not be a “public charge” — i.e., that they could support themselves financially — before they would be eligible for a visa to the United States. Since the refugees were required to leave almost all of their money in Germany, they had little hope of supporting themselves upon arrival in the United States and were forced to secure affidavits from U.S. citizens, typically relatives, who pledged to support them — a lengthy process.
The public charge rule was an onerous obstacle but not the only one. Jewish refugees needed travel visas from each country they might cross in their journey to the United States and needed to prove they would not pose a security risk. Would-be immigrants also faced years-long waiting lists for visas that were essentially a death sentence, a point made by Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) on the House floor in 1943. “It takes months and months to grant the visas,” Celler said, “and then it usually applies to a corpse.”
The U.S. government was well aware of Nazi atrocities as early as the 1930s, yet that knowledge did not spur federal action.
“One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated,” Treasury official Josiah E. DuBois Jr. wrote in a scathing 1944 memo. He warned that “this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination” and backed up his assertion with pages of documentation showing that State Department officials, driven by anti-Semitism, actively blocked the rescue of Jews desperately trying to escape Europe. A few weeks after the memo was written, President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally formed the War Refugee Board, which is credited with saving as many as 200,000 Jewish refugees.
Private organizations and individuals had long before stepped up to help refugees circumvent barriers erected by U.S. immigration policy. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American Friends Service Committee drew on its networks to find strangers who would pledge to support refugees as a way to sidestep the public charge rule. The Rockefeller Foundation formed the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars to place academics expelled from German universities at U.S. universities, where they would be eligible for work visas.
Finding jobs was not a simple task, even when placing highly qualified professors with degrees from distinguished institutions. The same anti-Semitism that fueled efforts to keep Jews out of the United States also pervaded academia. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, American faculty members who had seen their salaries slashed resented the idea of refugee scholars who might add to the strain on already limited university resources.