Government officials have justified their lethargic response to the Syrian refugee crisis by citing security concerns.
This excuse isn’t new. America’s security fears during World War II led to the rejection of Jews fleeing the Holocaust — and to the remorse that prompted the creation of the refugee process.
Rather than repeat the mistake we promised never to forget, we must learn to address our fears without forgetting our humanity — and this begins by welcoming refugees who want nothing but to build a life of opportunity and peace.
Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, the United States has admitted 1,854 of Syria’s nine million refugees — even as tens of thousands of civilians are being killed in the country’s conflict, and many others are drowning in the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. The reason for the slow response, officials claim, is that we are putting America’s security at risk by fast-tracking their admission.
Sound familiar? The State Department’s response to the Syrian crisis virtually mirrors its official response to the Holocaust. From the outset of World War II, the State Department set up high security standards on the pretext that refugees could be German spies, while only admitting token numbers.
In 1939, German Jews frantically applied for US visas. Because the United States issued so few, some Jewish refugees headed to Cuba to wait for their visas to become available. This, however, took a tragic turn in 1940 when the St. Louis, full of Jewish refugees, was denied entry to Cuba.
The desperate pleas passengers sent to the US State Department were denied. Forced to return to Europe, 532 passengers suffered through the Holocaust — and half were killed.
Despite this tragedy, the State Department tightened immigration requirements in 1940, halving all immigration to the country. In fact, the department essentially endorsed the decision to turn back the St. Louis in June 1940, discouraging Caribbean countries from accepting Jews, and stating that “spies had infiltrated the refugee stream.”
It didn’t stop there. That same year, the State Department slashed refugee immigration to 25 percent of its former limit. The reasoning behind this? That Axis powers were supposedly dispatching agents as refugees into the West. Even after the US officially acknowledged the Holocaust, the State Department resolutely upheld its restrictive policies.
Even the White House endorsed the restrictions. “The refugee has got to be checked,” President Roosevelt said, “because, unfortunately, among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries.” He conceded that this was “a very, very small percentage of refugees coming out of Germany,” yet insisted that the impossible vetting process was necessary.
In hindsight, it is easy to scoff about American fears about German refugees. But in the midst of a world war, concern about German espionage was not completely unfounded. The Nazis funded right-wing organizations in Cuba and elsewhere, and in June 1941, the FBI arrested 33 German spies in New York.
The president feared that German Jews might be forced to spy in order to protect their families in Germany. At least one Nazi spy pretending to be a refugee was arrested in Cuba.
The State Department was genuinely torn over the issue. Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, who controlled much of US visa policy during the war, articulated this internal conflict in his diary: “The refugee problem is a thorny one — and there is plenty of criticism either way the decision lies,” he wrote. “I weather that — and try to play it safe.”
Today, we continue to play it safe. The US refugee process has screeched to a halt. According to aid groups, some US refugee applications are taking 33 months to process. In contrast, Germany has sped up processing times, lowering waits from 7.1 to 5.3 months, even as it plans to accept more than a million Syrians.
Of the millions of refugees admitted in US in the past several decades, including hundreds of thousands from the Middle East, none of them has ever successfully completed an act of terrorism in the United States. Yet we have chosen to let people starve, drown, or be murdered in the name of security. Our insecurity has led to callous inhumanity.
Anxieties over refugees are not entirely irrational. Just as there were bad guys in Germany, there are bad guys in Syria — and everywhere else. But the lesson the Holocaust taught us is that we need to deal with these concerns without abandoning America’s moral leadership. It is time that we applied that lesson in Syria today.