What responsibility does the United States have towards asylum seekers? The question has renewed urgency because of what is taking place at our southern border. The answer is not some hazy mystery shrouded in unknowns. It was provided 80 years ago, when a human tragedy occurred because Americans failed to act as an international leader and failed to realize that its immigration policy is deeply tied to its foreign policy.
On June 17, 1939, the SS St. Louis docked in Antwerp, Belgium, after the U.S. government had turned the ocean-liner away, prohibiting its passengers from disembarking on American soil and forcing the ship to return to Europe.
Much ink has been spilled on the tale of this ship and its journey: the St. Louis spent weeks at sea starting in May 1939. It could not land in Cuba, where many German-Jewish asylum seekers would await their U.S. quota number to be called, because the Cuban government invalidated their landing documents while the ship was at sea because of internal political developments. As the boat sailed up the coast of the United States, telegrams sent directly to President Franklin Roosevelt conveyed the desperate pleas of those on the ship. But humanitarian appeals fell on deaf ears as fear mongering and anti-Semitism kept U.S. ports shut.
The rest of the world quickly followed the example America set. As the St. Louis slowly headed north, a number of prominent Canadian citizens asked Prime Minister Mackenzie King to help its passengers. He quickly made it clear that he was “emphatically opposed” to allowing them to enter Canada. Immigration Minister Frederick Blair argued that “if these Jews were to find a home (in Canada) they would likely be followed by other shiploads.”
Within two days, every country in Latin America also refused to let the refugees in. Following the U.S. example, they ruled that Jewish asylum seekers did not deserve refuge. The passengers briefly found refuge in Holland, Belgium, France and England. But soon they fell into Nazi hands again. Over a quarter of the Jews on the St. Louis eventually perished in the Holocaust.
The story remains a moral stain on U.S. international leadership. Despite the tales we tell of American leaders standing up to the racist Nazi regime, it was bigotry and anti-Semitism 80 years ago in America, not Europe, that made it impossible for Jewish asylum seekers to find a new home. In 2012, the State Department acknowledged this fact when it issued an apology. As William Burns, deputy secretary of state, noted to the assembled crowd filled with those surviving passengers of the St. Louis, “A photo of the M.S. Saint Louis hangs in the front office of the State Department’s refugee bureau as a powerful reminder and source of motivation. … The hard lessons of the M.S. Saint Louis are with us always. They are with us in the heavy and humbling knowledge that we are the most powerful nation … and our role comes with special responsibilities.”
So what precisely are these special responsibilities? In my work as a scholar of Jewish immigration, I ponder with my students: What can the history of Jewish refugees teach the world today? The tragedy of the St. Louis reminds us that border policies cannot be viewed solely through the lens of domestic politics. They demand a discussion of the forces bringing asylum seekers to America’s border. In fact, U.S. immigration policy only has to deal with asylum seekers once its foreign policy has failed to protect their human rights in their country of origin.
Roosevelt and the State Department did not appreciate these links in 1939. But Winston Churchill understood the relationship between foreign policy and immigration policy, which is why he allowed thousands of Jewish children to settle in Great Britain to demonstrate his aversion to Nazi policies towards Jews. America’s decision to do the opposite – to deny the passengers on the St. Louis refuge – sent the opposite message: Jews were expendable.
Following World War II, under the leadership of President Harry Truman, the United States recognized some of its failures and developed new policies that seemed to recognize the relationship between immigration and foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan and the Displaced Persons Act.
The Marshall Plan, which aimed to rebuild Europe and protect it from the instability of a blooming refugee crisis, was a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the Second World War. Many American leaders feared that Europe, ravaged by war, would be susceptible to exploitation by a Communist threat akin to the Nazi menace. So in a June 1947 speech to the graduating class at Harvard University, Secretary of State George Marshall issued a call for a comprehensive program to rebuild Europe.
At the same time, Truman urged Congress to produce legislation to aid the millions of displaced persons in Europe. Though it did not go far enough, the Displaced Persons Act allowed approximately 400,000 people over and above quota restrictions to immigrate to the United States. While this immigration law discriminated on religious, national and occupational grounds, its passage alongside the Marshall Plan showed America’s commitment to addressing challenges to its immigration system by shoring up democracy, the economy and civil society in Europe before asylum seekers crossed the ocean to the United States.
Today, most asylum seekers come by land, not sea. But the fear that drives their journey is the same. And while the president threatens tariffs on Mexico and a massive border wall, these actions will not stop the flow of people seeking safety. Indeed, such conversations diminish our ability to understand what drives asylum seekers to migrate. As the poet Warsan Shire eloquently wrote, “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”
The multinational Marshall Plan suggested in the last few months by the Mexican government is a good start. If we do not fix problems in people’s home countries, we will have to address their plight as refugees. The United States failed to acknowledge, let alone address, the needs of Jewish refugees 80 years ago. That had consequences beyond those passengers killed by the Nazi regime. It is worth pondering whether the trajectory of the Holocaust could have been different if the United States had symbolically stood up to Nazi Germany through its immigration policy.
We will never know for certain. But we know that the primary lesson the State Department said it learned from the fate of the passengers on the SS St. Louis “is that refugees and migrants deserve better” and that Americans must remember “there is always more we can and must do.”
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Kobrin holds the Russell and Bettina Knapp Chair in American Jewish history at Columbia University.