As states refusing to house Syrian refugees pile up, it’s clear that the country is in for a debate about whether or not it is worth the risk to house these people struck by tragedy — a decision there bears some similarities to the way the United States handled Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
Before state governors began declining Syrian refugees to cross their borders, President Obama had already agreed that the United States would be accepting 10,000 of them. This number is only a small fraction of the total number of Syrians that have been displaced by the crisis. In addition to the estimated 200,000 who have died since the country’s civil war began, more than three million have fled the country, according to the UN.
Although the United States actually brings in around 70,000 refugees annually, this amount all at once puts them in a position where it will be essential for all states to comply in accepting Syrians. The 25 states which have so far claimed that they will refuse to do so are Idaho, Florida, New Mexico, New Jersey, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Vermont, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Ohio.
Officials must now choose between a potential threat to national security and a humanitarian crisis where U.S. help is not only essential from an ethical perspective, but also to uphold its global reputation. As one of the world’s wealthiest nations and one of the biggest players in the Middle East, backing out of taking in its share of Syrian refugees would be viewed as a rejection of the notion that the U.S. has continued its involvement in the region to fight for human rights. It will not be easily forgiven or forgotten.
That is certainly something worth considering when it comes to other times when the United States has refused refugees. Although from 1938-1941, Jews were admitted under strict German and Austrian quotas, many were turned away, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The reason is startlingly similar to the one states are using to refuse Syrian refugees today: fear that they would become enemies.
“While some American activists sincerely intended to assist refugees, serious obstacles to any relaxation of US immigration quotas included public opposition to immigration during a time of economic depression, xenophobia, and antisemitic feelings in both the general public and among some key government officials. Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department practiced stricter immigration policies out of fear that refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany.”
In some instances, ships of Jewish refugees even reached U.S. shores before they were told that they would not be admitted. One such group of refugees was aboard the SS St. Louis, a luxury cruise liner that 900 Jews fled Germany on in 1939. After unsuccessfully trying to dock in Cuba, that ship attempted to land in Florida, one of the states refusing Syrian refugees today, before returning to Europe. At least 254 of the passengers were killed by the Nazis, reported BBC article.
As could well be the case in states refusing Syrian refugees, the reality of the bloodiness of The Holocaust sunk in after the war. Accordingly, the U.S. response changed greatly toward Jewish refugees. President Harry S. Truman pushed through an executive order on December 2, 1945, that added displaced persons (DPs) as their own category in the immigration quotas. Over the next few years around 20,000 displaced Jews would make it to the United States, with another 80,000 arriving after 1948 when Congress allotted for more DPs.
Jewish refugees refused during World War II should serve as a stunning example to the current states refusing Syrian refugees. Actions from the United States right now will not only profoundly affect its legacy, but, more importantly. it will directly decide the lives of the 10,000 who seek to gain shelter on American shores.
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