The U.S. Turned Jewish Refugees Away During The Holocaust. Its Refugee Policy Hasn't Changed Much Since.

The United States says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—unless they don’t look or act like me.

Rick Perlstein

Recently-arrived refugees from Afghanistan seen at a temporary camp at the U.S. Army's Rhine Ordnance Barracks (ROB) on August 30, 2021 in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

In 1975, Congressman Thomas Rees (D‑Calif.) summarized the phone calls he was getting from constituents about the war refugees housed on a Marine base in his district: They think of the Vietnamese as nothing but diseased job-seekers.” In a Florida military town, kids joked about organizing a Gook Klux Klan.” California Gov. Jerry Brown demanded Congress reserve jobs for Americans first” in its refugee aid bill. Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island suggested Borneo instead: It has the same latitude, the same climate, and would welcome some anti-Communists.”

If the United States is too racist to take care of the people who help us prosecute our wars, perhaps we shouldn’t start them in the first place.

Even our most humane administration failed the moral test of welcoming the world’s tired, huddled masses. In 1939, the cabled pleas to FDR from 937 German Jews anchored within sight of Miami went unanswered—except by the State Department (they must await their turns”) and a Coast Guard vessel (that ensured no one swam for shore). Echoing that failure 82 years later, thousands of Haitians fleeing the aftermath of natural disaster and political chaos (to which the United States helped contribute) were sent back to further misery after many were manhandled by Border Patrol agents on horseback.

America formalized its modern refugee policy in 1980 after three major waves of refugees: Haitians fleeing the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Southeast Asians fleeing a regional war and Cubans who left when Fidel Castro temporarily opened up the port in Mariel. The policy authorized the president to set a refugee cap; the first year, it was 230,000. Except for a brief bump during the Balkan wars, it hovered subsequently around 70,000 before collapsing to a low of 18,000 under the Trump administration. 

Following the Taliban victory, President Joe Biden plans to resettle 95,000 Afghans by September 2022

What would be a fair number? Consider the demand side. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates 37 million people have fled their homes in nations suffering wars started or abetted by the United States since 9/11. But the conversation here is limited to how many refugees we could conceivably absorb” — a politics based partially on Americans’ traditional nativism. In 1980, the backlash to Marielistas sent to Arkansas was one of the reasons then Gov. Bill Clinton lost reelection. FDR’s heart was hardened by the nativism of a nation facing 17% unemployment. Perhaps we can be cheered by an NPR/​Ipsos poll showing almost two in three Americans favor resettling Afghans who fear the Taliban — in contrast to the 28% in 2015 who thought we should welcome those fleeing ISIS” in Syria and the 36% in 1975 who thought evacuated South Vietnamese should be permitted to live in the United States.” 

Still, no one’s talking about resettling, say, Yemenis whose villages were flattened by American-made bombs from Saudi Arabian planes.

And Fox News is working hard to change those numbers. Laura Ingraham insists resettlement is a Democratic Party plot to grow dependency on government programs and build a new constituency.” Fox News anchor Lawrence Jones said thousands are heading to the battleground states that Democrats are desperate to win in 2022.” 

Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale’s response to the 75 people his state will resettle was, I will not allow this administration to compromise the safety of Montanans” — and that they would be better off in countries around Afghanistan that share their values and culture.” 

If the United States is too racist to take care of the people who help us prosecute our wars, perhaps we shouldn’t start them in the first place.

Rick Perlstein, an In These Times board member, is the author of Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976 – 1980 (2020), The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications, and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history. 

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue