The Syrian refugee crisis: Is history repeating itself?

     German Jewish refugees returned to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the liner St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba. A small group of the 907 refugees are shown here, smiling in the face of their adversity, as they arrived at Antwerp after their long voyage on June 17, 1939 in Belgium. (AP Photo)

    German Jewish refugees returned to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the liner St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba. A small group of the 907 refugees are shown here, smiling in the face of their adversity, as they arrived at Antwerp after their long voyage on June 17, 1939 in Belgium. (AP Photo)

    Permit me to paraphrase a song lyric from Prince:

    Americans who want to slam the door on Syrian refugees are partying like it’s 1939.

    What we’re hearing right now, especially from Republican governors, is the marketable fear that ISIS agents will slip into America amidst the flow. How eerily familiar that argument is. In the late ’30s and early ’40s, State Department officials in FDR’s administration slammed the door on Jewish refugees – essentially condemning many of them to death – out of fear (baseless, by the way) that Nazi agents would slip into America amidst the flow.

    Donald Trump tweets, “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are – some could be ISIS.” Bobby Jindal, the latest presidential dropout, signed an “executive order” to bar refugees from Louisiana, even though governors have no power to decide such things. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas warns that “opening the door…irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unspeakable peril.” (Abbott wants the peril to remain routinely home-grown. On an annual basis, roughly 700 Texans are shot and killed by other Texans.) Arguably worst of all, Chris Christie is so worried about ISIS agents infiltrating Jersey that he wants to bar kids too: “I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point.”

    Those of us who know the Holocaust have heard it all before. If you’re not interested in historical perspective, don’t bother to read this. I’m doing it anyway, drawing material from two well-documented books: The Abandonment of the Jews by David Wyman and FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman. Consider this an exercise in deja vu.

    In the late ’30s, a national poll sponsored by Fortune magazine found that 61 percent of Americans wanted to slam the door on 10,000 Jewish child refugees. Another poll found that 69 percent supported slamming the door on Jewish adult refugees. Such was the prevailing mood of that era, when anti-Semitism was rampant in America. And it was mirrored at the State Department, where refugee point man Breckinridge Long repeatedly barred entry.

    Long’s main argument (which cloaked the anti-Semitism) was that the refugees were a national security risk, that Nazis would infiltrate the ranks. When the British government pleaded with America to take more refugees, Long pushed back. He boasted in his diary that the British had attempted “a plain effort to embarrass us by dumping the international aspects of the (refugee issue) plumb in our lap. I picked up the ball, and by our reply put the baby very uncomfortably back on their laps.”

    There were a lot of inchoate fears about the Jewish refugees – that many of them might be Bolsheviks and anarchists, as well as dupes for Nazi agents – but there was virtually no basis in reality. At one point, FDR’s Treasury Department investigated the State Department’s conduct, and concluded:

    “Under the pretext of security reasons so many difficulties have been placed in the way of refugees obtaining visas that it is no wonder that the admission of refugees to this country does not come anywhere near the (allowable) quota….If anyone were to attempt to work out a set of restrictions specifically designed to prevent Jewish refugees from entering this country, it is difficult to conceive of how more effective restrictions could have been imposed than have already been imposed on the grounds of ‘security’….These restrictions are not essential for security reasons.”

    The “security” fear was baseless because a slew of American agencies and refugee-aid groups rigorously vetted the refugees while they were still overseas. Which is why, when FDR’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees probed the claim that Nazi agents would infiltrate the ranks, it found that the actual number of infiltrators was quite small:


    It was a German Catholic of Jewish descent who arrived in America in 1940 from London, after British intelligence spurned his offer to spy for the Allies. And the feds nabbed him anyway. (Alas, his capture and conviction merely fanned the public’s fears. Breitman writes, “The publicity from such a case, including front-page coverage in The New York Times, loomed larger than the loyalty of many tens of thousands of anti-Nazi Jewish refugees.”)

    But those who oppose the entry of Syrian refugees will surely dismiss this history lesson, by insisting that 2015 is not 1939 and ISIS is not the Nazis. The mantra right now, most notably from Republicans, is that we should “pause” (Paul Ryan’s word) until we at least know how these refugees will be vetted.

    Um. We already know how they will be vetted. Because the procedure has been in place for a long time. America takes in roughly 70,000 refugees every year – even during the George W. Bush era, yet I don’t recall Republicans being up in arms about al Qaeda infiltrators – and the screening works like this (courtesy of the respected Economist magazine):

    “Refugees apply for resettlement at American embassies or through the United Nations. If they pass that first hurdle, they are screened by outposts of the Department of State all over the world. They undergo investigations of their biography and identity; FBI biometric checks of their fingerprints and photographs; in-person interviews by Department of Homeland Security officers; medical screenings as well as investigations by the National Counterterrorism Center and by American and international intelligence agencies. The process may take as long as three years, sometimes longer. No other person entering America is subjected to such a level of scrutiny.”

    And remember how those Nazi infiltration fears turned out to be baseless? Here’s a contemporary stat, from the Migration Policy Institute think tank: Since 9/11, America has taken in roughly 745,000 refugees. And the number of people in those ranks who have been arrested on terrorism charges is:


    A couple of guys were pinched in Kentucky for trying to buy guns (taking advantage of America’s loose purchase laws), with the goal of shipping the weapons back to the al Qaeda chapter in Iraq.

    So while Chris Christie is busy targeting five-year-olds, and Republicans in Congress are weighing the idea of shutting down the government unless we first agree to bar refugees, I’ll remember the Jews we turned away – and the famous words of essayist George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

     Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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