Bob Dylan once asked, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration, which closes the door to refugees fleeing persecution and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, is prompting many Americans to ask the same question: Do we ever learn from our past mistakes?
America at its best is a beacon for religious freedom and a haven for those seeking refuge from tyranny. When in the past we have strayed from those ideals — as our nation did, for example, in 1882 by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act; in 1939 by turning away the St. Louis, a ship filled with nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis who were sent back to Europe, condemning hundreds to death in concentration camps; and in 1942 when tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps — we have lived to regret it and felt compelled to formally apologize.
It’s always too little, too late, and those are only some of the examples.
Our nation was founded by people fleeing homelands where they were disfavored and persecuted because of their religion. Our founders sought to cast off the shackles of Europe’s endless religious wars, traveling to our shores with a hope of creating a more perfect union. With Thomas Jefferson and James Madison leading the way, they translated their vision into laws. Jefferson’s famous “Statute for Religious Freedom” was the inspiration for the religion clauses now enshrined in our First Amendment.
Although the makeup of the United States was overwhelmingly Christian at its birth, our founders were clear that the nation’s new laws prohibiting religious discrimination extended to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
When Jefferson later reflected on his Statute for Religious Freedom, he extolled the broad application of the law, which was evidence that the legislators “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and every Infidel of every denomination.”
America’s openness to refugees, of course, has been a huge boon to our nation.
That same vision of the United States as a beacon of freedom is reflected in Emma Lazarus’ immortal sonnet, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” It is also a vision that has been articulated by Democratic and Republican presidents though the modern era, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
America’s openness to refugees, of course, has been a huge boon to our nation. When we opened our doors after World War II to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of European Jews and other Europeans displaced from their home countries, those who came through subsequently made immeasurable contributions to politics, science, literature, music, art and social and scientific studies.
The same pattern repeated itself when we welcomed those fleeing Communist regimes, including hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, and again since the 1980s with refugees from other troubled spots around the world. Since 1975, the U.S. has settled over 3 million refugees. Today, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by recent immigrants or their children.
In sharp contrast to the times when the U.S. has shown its “natural humanitarian impulses,” those occasions when this country has succumbed to fear or bigotry and closed its doors have led to tragic consequences.
Sometimes the victims of this xenophobia were Jews or other religious minorities, sometimes they were from nations that were regarded as undesirable and sometimes they were groups the government suspected as disloyal or threatening. In each case, the U.S. apologized years later, after it was too late.
Although it is just one example, the story of the St. Louis is illustrative of what happens when we turn our backs on refugees in need. In May 1939, the ship St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, carrying 937 passengers, nearly all of whom were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The ship was headed to Havana, Cuba, with the hope of having its passengers granted sanctuary in the U.S.
The passengers were supposed to be allowed to enter Cuba while waiting for visas to the U.S., but Cuba turned them away. The St. Louis then headed towards Miami, coming within sight of the Florida coastline. Despite the passengers’ pleas, the U.S. refused to accept them, reflecting anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments prevailing at the time. The ship was forced to sail back to Europe. Historians estimate that more than a quarter of the St. Louis passengers — 254 people — were killed in the Holocaust, including a number at the concentration camp Auschwitz.
Five years ago, in 2012, the United States government issued a formal apology for the country’s refusal to provide refuge for the Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis. Addressing the 14 surviving passengers, a State Department official stated: "To the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the president and secretary of state, I am honored to say what we should’ve said so long ago, welcome."
That message — welcome — is also what we should be saying to refugees and immigrants today who still see America as a beacon of hope and freedom. To Bob Dylan’s question, the answer should not be blowing in the wind. An America true to its ideals will not turn its head away from those seeking refuge here and pretend it just doesn’t see.
For more information or to take action, visit ADL’s campaign at thisisarefugee.org.