In a response to Friday’s horrific terror attacks in Paris, twenty-six governors have taken steps to deny the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. Chris Christie went as far as saying that Syrian “orphans under age 5” don’t belong here, while Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have both suggested we admit refugees based on religion.
The logic here is equal parts dumb and dangerous, for reasons almost (almost!) too obvious to merit a response—working backward, there’s the founding principles of our nation, the basic precepts of human decency, and the fact that state governors don’t actually have the power to dictate immigration policy.
But along with these (apparently ignorable) realities, we should remember another refugee who was turned away by a fearful and prejudiced public: Anne Frank. According to documents discovered in 2012, Anne’s father wrote numerous letters to U.S. officials pleading for permission to immigrate with his family. Most of these were written between April and December of 1941, in the months following the Nazi’s occupation of the Netherlands, where the Frank family had been exiled.
At the end of 1941, after the family’s pleas were ignored, the Franks would go into hiding for two years, until they were eventually discovered and sent to Auschwitz. In 1945, Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
Though most people are familiar with the tragic story of this brilliant young girl, few seem to consider why the United States had closed its doors to her family and so many others. As fear, ignorance, and political will combine to shape the national mood toward refugees, it’s well worth taking another look.
Following World War I, Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which set up a quota system that discouraged the immigration of Jews, Italians and other “undesirables.” For anyone following the GOP primaries, the rhetoric here will ring familiar: Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office, told Congress that new immigrants were polluting the country’s bloodline with “feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, and dependency.”
Despite the existence of this harsh, racist quota, things managed to get worse in the years leading up to World War II. At the behest of American consular officials and the Assistant Secretary of State, a bureaucratic maze was constructed to ensure that even the meager quota remain unreached. The political “paper wall” was bolstered by the public, as anti-semitism spread throughout the United States along with the fear that the Jews had been infiltrated by Hitler’s spies. Between 1941 and 1945—the height of the Nazi regime’s systematic killing—90% of the available spots were unused, translating to nearly 190,000 lives that went unsaved.
Anne Frank represents but one of these precious lives, yet the humanity preserved in her famous diary forces us to remember the beloved figure not as an unnamed statistic but as a living, breathing person. In the wake of Friday’s attacks, as we seek to strike a balance between security and compassion, we should also strive to see the Syrian refugees in the same light, to bear in mind the unforgivable consequences of casting a fellow human as “undesirable.”
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