Letter to Rep. Zeldin on Immigration Ban

Dear Rep. Zeldin:

I am so ashamed of the immigration order issued by Mr. Trump. Even more shocking, given your Jewish heritage, is that you actually support this ban – on helpless people simply looking to avoid sinister and deadly oppression. As you must be painfully aware, Jews experienced a similar fate almost 80 years ago. And, in one of the most shameful events in US history, the US government turned its back on them – just as it is doing today with respect to refugees from similar oppression in their home countries.

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from Eastern Europe, and a few were officially “stateless.” This emigration was the result of efforts by the German government to accelerate the pace of forced Jewish emigration. It also hoped to exploit the unwillingness of other nations to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees to justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish goals and policies both domestically in Germany and in the world at large.

In Cuba, hostility toward immigrants fueled both anti-semitism and xenophobia. Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations, claiming that incoming Jews were Communists. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government admitted 28 passengers, but refused to admit the remaining passengers or to allow them to disembark from the ship.

After Cuba denied entry to the passengers on the St. Louis, the press throughout Europe and the Americas, including the United States, brought the story to millions of readers throughout the world.

Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

Not unlike today, the Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. This situation fueled anti-semitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in a then unpopular cause. Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.

The plight of the St. Louis remains one of the most shameful episodes in US history, largely because of the anti-semitic overtones.

The same irrational xenophobic themes populate the supposed rationale underlying Mr. Trump’s Executive Order denying refuge to those seeking to escape the ravages of war that has engulfed the Middle East, which largely has been the result of President Bush’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no legitimate reason for the Executive Order; it is well known that the refugees who have been granted entry into the US have undergone vetting (some two years worth by more than a dozen US military and intelligence agencies) which could not be more “extreme.”

Your heritage teaches that your support for the rejection of these refugees purely on religious and national ideology should be condemned. You would be well served to follow its teachings.


Bruce Colbath

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1 Response to Letter to Rep. Zeldin on Immigration Ban

  1. John Hooker says:

    The shameful inaction of the Roosevelt administration in the St. Louis ocean liner affair is not well known and therefore worth remembering here. This is a great piece that deserves wide readership. Mr. Zeldin should be ashamed for his support of the immigration ban.

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