America’s response to the refugee crisis reflects the worst of its past

They need America’s help.
They need America’s help.
Image: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
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As a people, Americans have a short attention span. As a nation, it has a short memory. But its attitudes about refugees and migrants today are inextricably bound up with our beliefs and behaviors in the past—which it would be morally and politically helpful to remember.

The United Nations estimates that the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is the worst since World War II.  Pressure is mounting for all European nations to be more welcoming to refugees, and pressure is mounting in the United States as well. Even Republican presidential candidate and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has called for the United States to take in “its fair share” of Syrian refugees—while also, thankfully, chastising those in his party spreading anti-migration extremism. If the United States doesn’t play a more active and constructive role in the refugee crisis, Sen. Graham said, “We should take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down.” He’s right. 

Despite the fact that the United States was founded as a nation of immigrants fleeing colonial oppression, it hasn’t always lived up to those values. Among its greatest moral crimes and hypocrisies as a nation has been the continued mistreatment of American Indians and African Americans, up to and including the present day. But when it tries to redeem that history by proudly boasting that it is a “nation of immigrants” it forgets how badly past migrants and refugees have been treated.

In the early days of World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, president Franklin Roosevelt—he of the proud, progressive legacy of the New Deal—forced the relocation and incarceration of over 127,000 American citizens because they were of Japanese descent. Italian nationals were also detained in the United States but not Italian American citizens. About 10,000 Italian Americans were, however, forced to relocate inland from the US. coasts. That’s how America treated the migrants and descendants of migrants who were already here.

Then there were the Jews. In the Holocaust, an estimated six million Jews were systematically murdered. Only about 450,000 to 500,000 Jews survived. The United States did indeed take in over 130,000 Jewish refugees—more than any other nation-state. But this was far less than the United States could have taken in under newly-created quota laws. Anti-Semitism at the time arguably (mis)shaped American practice—in 1939, a poll found that over half of Americans agreed with the statement that, in terms of immigration, “Jews are different and should be restricted.” American right-wing extremists of the day, such as Father Charles Coughlin, inveighed against the “Jewish invasion.”

It’s not hard to still find echoes of this virulent rhetoric in Europe or America today—a prominent right-wing Catholic Bishop in Hungary warned recently that Syrian refugees amount to a Muslim “invasion” and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he wants to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, presumably including Mexicans he has suggested are all rapists and drug dealers. 

And yet at the same time, often in the same speeches, conservative politicians here in the United States proclaim firm solidarity with the Jewish people and the Jewish state of Israel. Witness the inveighing against the Iran Deal, which former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee critiqued as tantamount to marching Israel “to the door of the oven.”  

 The Jewish people who migrated to the United States in the wake of World War II (many of my relatives included) have unarguably become an essential and vital part of the American cultural landscape—not to mention the political landscape, as evidenced by the nature of the debate over the Iran Deal. I suspect that few today would argue against increasing the number of Jewish refugees the United States helped in World War II (we only took 10% of our quota ceiling), just as they would be quick to condemn the way we treated Japanese and Italian Americans. Ah, hindsight…. So why not apply those same values now? 

During the last great world refugee crisis, the United States took in more than 132,000 Jews. Today, the country’s refugee ceiling is set at 70,000 and President Obama has proposed accepting merely 10,000 Syrian refugees next fiscal year. That’s simply not enough—and reflects the worst of America’s past, not the best of its present.