Given the current heated debate over immigration and refugees, this seems like a good time to remember the consequences of when the United States slammed the door on refugees. On Throwback Thursday, here is a revised and updated post from two years ago.
With immigration and refugee policy at the center of significant polciy disagreement, it seems worthwhile to remember the ill-fated voyage of the German ocean liner St. Louis in 1939. The ship carried 908 Jewish refugees who were fleeing from Nazi Germany. The ship and its passengers were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada. Finally, the ship turned around and returned to Europe. Despite the US government’s refusal to accept the refugees, private Jewish aid groups in the United States did manage to place most of the refugees in Belgium, France and Holland, to avoid returning them to Nazi Germany. Tragically, many were later captured when the Nazis invaded. Two-hundred-and-fifty-four of the refugees are believed to have died in the German death camps. The voyage has been the subject of at least one book and two movies. The movie, Voyage of the Damned, in 1974 was based on the book of the same name by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. A second movie, The Voyage of the St. Louis, was released in 1995. Here is an A&E documentary from 1998, narrated by Patrick Tull.
Sadly, Americans have a long history of hostility to refugees. Even though our most sacred icon, the Statue of Liberty, notionally welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” Americans overall are usually less welcoming. A public opinion poll in the United States in late 1938 showed that 67% of respondents were opposed to allowing “German, Austrian and other political refugees” to enter the country. Likewise, a 1939 poll asked if the US should “permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany?” 61% responded “no.”
Today, the opinions are split. According to a Pew poll from January, when asked how much of a threat to the well being of the United States would the arrival of large numbers of refugees from countries like Syria and Iraq have, 51% said a minor or no threat where as 46% said a major threat. The results split along party lines, the age of the respondents and their level of education.