There's been so much in the news lately about the proposed immigration legislation being debated in Washington, especially a House bill approved in December that would have made it a felony both to be in the country illegally and even to provide charitable assistance to illegal immigrants. There's been a lot of talk about enforcing the laws we have and making sure the immigrants follow the rules we have in place, and it reminded me of a case in which our laws were successfully enforced and the system worked.
The case in point involved a large group of immigrants who were trying to get into this country despite the fact that most of them didn't speak English and they had no jobs or families waiting for them. Most of them had applied for visas to enter the country, but they chose not to wait before starting their journey to the United States.
After a protracted legal battle, however, the State Department told these immigrant wannabes that they had to "await their turns on the waiting list and then qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States." They were sent back to their point of origin to await the legal process in order to become American citizens according to the rules.
So it was that after getting so close to their American goal that they could see the lights of Miami from the deck of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, over nine hundred Jewish refugees from Germany and eastern Europe were returned to Europe in 1939 after attempting to enter the United States by way of Cuba after fleeing the Third Reich.
Despite appeals by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, President Roosevelt chose not to issue an executive order admitting the refugees, and the 1924 Immigration Act was enforced. The passengers eventually made their way to Belgium and were relocated to refugee centers in various European countries, many of which eventually fell under German occupation. A number of the passengers of the St. Louis were eventually granted their American visas; many of them had already disappeared into the camps by that time.
Look, I'm not telling you what to believe about the current immigration debate. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it myself, to be perfectly honest. And I'm not saying that the situations faced by European Jews in the 1930s is even remotely the same as that faced by Central American and Asian immigrants today. It's not the same at all, although extreme Third World poverty is certainly its own kind of tyranny.
My point is simply that if we approach this issue simply as one of law and protection of some perceived notion of American status quo, we ignore the human factor. We miss the whole reason that so many people risk so much to try to make a future in this country. In missing that, we miss what it really means to be an American. And unless we live on a reservation, our ancestors probably wouldn't be too thrilled with us for that.