A repeat of the past

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy

In November of 1938, Nazi operatives and sympathizers vandalized Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. This practice was called “Kristallnacht,” in reference to the broken windows, but along with businesses, hundreds of synagogues were burned and dozens of Jews were murdered. This was a warning to Jewish citizens that they were now second class citizens. It was also a warning that German citizens should not patronize Jewish businesses.

Recognizing that the future in Germany would be dangerous for Jews, in May 1939 about 900 passengers boarded the MS St. Louis. The ship sailed for Cuba, and from there they hoped to get visas to enter the U.S. The number of German visas had already hit the U.S. quota, and the passengers were refused entry. After several rounds of diplomacy, a number of European countries agreed take in the passengers. Even so, it is estimated that about one–fourth of those passengers were later murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Three years later, in the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and members of his administration were still trying to prevent Jewish refugees from entering the U.S. Jewish people fleeing an organized effort to kill every Jewish person in Europe were denied entry into the U.S. because skittish officials were afraid of the possibility of spies, even though there was little evidence that spies were entering the country.

Roosevelt’s administration argued that European Jews might be spies for the Nazis. As preposterous as this seems to us today, this attitude was a product of the fear from violence and the uncertainty of war.

Unfortunately, the executive order on immigration signed by President Donald Trump seems to be based on similar, unfounded concerns. While it is true that the president has authority over many aspects of immigration, this recent order fails to make a distinction between different types of immigrants.

For one, the recent order does not differentiate short-term visa holders from permanent residents. Permanent residents are people who have lived in the U.S. for a number of years and have received permission to live here – also known as having a “green card.” Getting one’s green card is often the step taken just before becoming a full citizen. This process takes years, and the applicants are subject to extensive background checks. Banning such people from the U.S., especially without prior warning, is to literally prevent people from returning to their homes, families and jobs.

Imagine if you were to return to your apartment after a day of class only to find the landlord has changed the locks. You are informed that despite the lease you signed, your permission to stay here is being reevaluated. Will you fail your classes because you cannot return? Too bad. Will you be unable to return to your family? Too bad.

What is also cruel, and sometime seven deadly, is denying entry to people who have been granted refugee status. People who are awarded refugee status have proven to the U.S. that returning to their home country is likely to result in imprisonment or death. The vetting process for refugee status requires multiple interviews and takes a year or more to process. This is a stringent vetting process.

Many of these refugees are already living in broken families. Some refugees are children who have lost parents to war. Some are spouses who are trying to reunite with families. Most of them have lost their homes and are seeking protection in the U.S.

The U.S. government granted entry status to these people. To rescind this, with no warning, and more importantly, without due process, simply because of one’s ancestry, is cruel and capricious and does nothing to increase the security of the U.S.