It’s Not Just Jeff Sessions: America Has Shown No Mercy to Refugees Before
It’s a convenient myth that he’s the most heartless attorney general we’ve ever seen. Just look at the appalling record of the past 100 years.
Children ripped from the arms of their mothers at the Mexican border, immigrants in Virginia arrested as they leave church, and now no asylum for people fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse. As this merciless Justice Department regime earns the reproof of the United Nations and outrage around the world, the cry is heard, “This is not who we are.”
But it is.
In a nation created and established largely by immigrants, there is a long history of virulent opposition to giving refuge to the endangered—and of deporting anybody on capricious whim.
These crimes against humanity have two explicit and harrowing defining episodes in our history—each, as it happens, involves the passage of a ship.
Let’s start with the case of a decrepit ocean liner, the St. Louis, operated across the Atlantic in the 1930s by the Hamburg-Amerika line.
In November 1938, Nazi mobs were unleashed all over Germany to destroy every synagogue in the country, in the atrocity named Kristallnacht. Jews were forced to watch the synagogues burn, women and children were terrorized and an estimated 7,500 business premises were damaged or destroyed.
For all German Jews this was the turning point in deciding their survival—as it was intended to be by Hitler. Anybody with the means to leave and a safe haven to go to had to get out.
Eventually they included 937 men, women and children who, on May 14, 1939, boarded the St. Louis at Hamburg, bound for Cuba. The price for the passage was relatively high by the values of the time, $150 for every person.
Cuba’s economy and power structure was basically controlled by foreign interests, dominated by America’s United Fruit Company, working through a political system based on a few Cuban families who enriched themselves while most of the rest of the country lived in grinding poverty. The director of the Cuban immigration service had been quietly building a personal fortune by selling landing permits for $150 a piece. Hundreds of refugees, including 2,500 Jews, had already been admitted.
In a country where good jobs were scarce this was causing a backlash, partly fueled by anti-Semitism and, as the St. Louis approached Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government canceled the landing permits of all Jewish passengers.
In the broiling summer heat they were marooned on the St. Louis in the harbor. Reports of their plight provoked many Americans to call for the refugees to be allowed entry to Florida, but the Roosevelt administration was unmoved. Every country in Latin America also refused them refuge. The ship left Havana on June 2 and sailed north, passing close enough to Florida for the refugees to see the lights of Miami.
Some passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. The president did not respond. The State Department parroted the policy that all refugees had to await their turns on waiting list before they would get visas to enter the U.S.
Immigration numbers, set in 1924, included an annual quota for refugees from Germany and Austria of 27,370 and this was unchanged, even as the systematic Nazi persecution and slaughter of Jews got underway. By 1939 the waiting time had grown to several years. A bill in Congress, early in 1939, to allow the admission of 20,000 Jewish children from Germany, died for want of support. (Britain, in contrast, admitted thousands of Jewish child refugees.)
Hope arose that Canada would be more sympathetic, but Canada’s immigration chief also denied them entry, saying “If these Jews were to find a home in Canada they would likely be followed by other shiploads. The line must be drawn somewhere.”
On June 7 the St. Louis turned back toward Germany. Nazi propaganda exploited the situation by pronouncing that it proved that Jews were unwelcome anywhere.
Other European nations showed more mercy. Belgium took 214 of the passengers, Britain 288, France 224, Netherlands 194.
When the German armies swept into the Low Countries and France in May 1940, 87 of those who had been passengers on the St. Louis managed to escape. All of the refugees taken by Britain survived the war, but for one killed in the London blitz. Two hundred and fifty-four of the original passengers died in the Holocaust.
In 1919, the second vessel in this story, the SS Buford, was also in bad shape. She had served as a troop transport in the Spanish-American War. Now, rather than searching for sanctuary in an American port like the St. Louis, the Buford was sitting in New York harbor, close to Ellis Island, waiting to head out across the Atlantic.
Early on the morning of Dec. 21, 249 people who had been detained on Ellis Island were taken out on barges to the Buford, escorted by 250 armed guards, with no idea of where they were headed.
The most famous of the detainees was Emma Goldman, charismatic anarchist and a potent influence on the radical uprising that had triggered a wave of strikes in America, notably by steel workers. With Goldman was her longtime lover and co-agitator Alexander Berkman.
President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, exploited fears—nurtured in the widespread public spasm known as the Red Scare—suggesting that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia would be followed by a similar insurrection in the U.S. led by radicals who, like Goldman, had emigrated from Russia.
Immigration agents were mobilized to seize and detain any radicals who could not prove their citizenship. These included Goldman, who had arrived in America late in 1885, part of an exodus of Jews fleeing a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. She had never become a naturalized American citizen.
Those scooped up and sent to Ellis Island were considered the most dangerous of all the activists. Their removal was intended to decapitate the radical leadership.
There was little popular sympathy or support for them. The New York Times, in an editorial, talked of “the sweet sorrow of parting at last with two of the most pernicious of anarchists, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, for a generation among the most virulent and dangerous preachers and practicers of the doctrines of destruction.”
In New York the most persistent of Goldman’s pursuers was the young J. Edgar Hoover, an agent of the new General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department, and forerunner of the FBI. Hoover developed the tactic of planting spies in the radical movements—he had successfully infiltrated the office of the black activist Marcus Garvey, and he placed a woman informer close to Goldman.
Appearing before immigration officials—and Hoover—Goldman denounced the treatment of the steel workers who had gone on strike: “A reign of terror has been established in the strike region. American Cossacks, known as the State Constabulary, ride over men, women and children, deputies of the Department of Justice break into the strikers’ homes… the immigration authorities take the strikers off secretly and order them deported by such proceedings as I am being subjected to today, without having committed the slightest offense against American institutions…”
She was, however, resigned to her fate, deportation.
Once the Buford was at sea, Goldman and the others discovered their destination: of all places, Russia, now in the grip of post-revolutionary chaos. As the Buford crossed the Atlantic in the rough winter seas the men were confined to steerage while the women were locked in their cabins. In her memoir, Goldman noted that “American puritanism” kept her dry while the men, allowed on the lower deck for air, were drenched by waves crashing against the hull.
After a month at sea the Buford reached the Finnish port of Hango. From there the exiles were taken by a locked train to Soviet Russia.
But for a single three-week visit Goldman never returned to America.
The Red Scare proved an effective instrument in hardening hearts against immigrants as the dangerous “other”—just as the scourge of MS-13 Mexican gangsters is now used to tarnish all Mexican immigrants.
Also, by associating the Russian-born radicals with social instability the government was effectively blunting the power of the unions, even though collective bargaining was their right.
The president’s position was deeply hypocritical. Wilson went to the Paris peace conference in 1919 as the messianic voice of human rights and national independence from colonial rule. At home he oversaw the resurgence of corporate power against workers’ rights.
Earlier in the century, President Teddy Roosevelt had railed as powerfully as Emma Goldman about the forces he described as the “malefactors of great wealth.” He had busted the big oil and railroad cartels with anti-trust legislation, but big steel remained unbridled. American capitalism had now lost the ability to self-correct, and was headed toward near self-destruction with the Great Crash.
More insidiously, once unbottled anti-immigrant sentiment fed on xenophobia that, in turn, fed on racial stereotypes. The restrictive 1924 quotas on immigration followed.
Looked at with this perspective, today’s brutalities of immigration policy seem familiar, not aberrant. America’s attitude toward immigration never seems to evolve. Instead, there are cycles of progress and reaction. Neither political party looks good. The two episodes described here both occurred under Democratic presidents. Attorney General Sessions is now busy emulating Attorney General Palmer and what became known as “the Palmer raids.”
“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems, that people face every day all over the world,” Sessions told a meeting of immigration judges this week. Presumably that would include pogroms. Later, facing a storm of criticism from church leaders, he grotesquely misinterpreted the Bible as justification for tearing apart families.
The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, a few months after Emma Goldman arrived in New York harbor.
In 1919, as she left that harbor aboard the SS Buford, she noted: “I felt dizzy, visioning a transport of politicals doomed to Siberia… But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance…it was my beloved city, the Metropolis of the New World. It was America, indeed, America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up—the Statue of Liberty!”