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U.S. Immigration Controls and Hitler’s Holocaust


Whenever people advocate immigration controls, not surprisingly they never bring up the role that U.S. immigration controls played in Hitler’s killing of millions of German Jews.

What American schoolchildren are rarely taught about the Holocaust is that long before World War II, when the Nazi death camps were established, Hitler was ready and willing to let every Jew in Germany leave the country.

The problem? No nation, including the United States, was willing to let them in.

Under a system of immigration controls, if people flee their country to save their lives or the lives of his spouse and children from murder, rape, or starvation, the government of the country to which they flee can arrest them and forcibly return them to the country where they are going to killed, raped, or die from starvation. Thus, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the ability to leave a country is meaningless if every other country bars entry and forcibly repatriates people to the country they left.

Open immigration was one of the things that made the United States in the 19th century so unique, so different, so “exceptional” if you will. America was one of the rare countries in history that served as a sanctuary for everyone in the world who was facing the prospect of death, suffering, or misery or who just wanted to improve his life. Anyone could come to the United States knowing that there was no possibility that he would be forcibly returned to his country of origin.

I’ll bet many Americans today have no idea of how radical their national heritage of open immigration is within the context of world history. America’s system of open immigration saved the lives of millions of people and improved the lot of millions more. It is a heritage that every American should be proud of. It’s that heritage that is celebrated by the Statue of Liberty and the poem by Emma Lazarus found at the base of the statue.

America’s system of open immigration lasted around 100 years, until Congress enacted the nation’s first immigration-control law. Entitled the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it was directed against Chinese laborers who were coming into the United States. Like today’s anti-immigration mindset toward people from Latin America and Africa, the notion was that the Chinese immigrants were adversely impacting American “culture” and could never become like real Americans.

Ironically (or perhaps not), the idea of immigration controls were percolating at the same time that statists began advocating that Americans reject and abandon their founding system of free markets and limited government in favor of a domestic welfare-state, regulated-economy way of life and a foreign policy of interventionism and imperialism.

By the time 1930s arrived, statists had succeeded in getting their agenda adopted. In the midst of the Great Depression, the United States enacted Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ironically resembled many of the economic programs that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were employing in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy to combat the Great Depression. By this time, the United States also now had a system of immigration controls, just like every other nation. By this time, the U.S. government had intervened in the Spanish-American War and World War I, with World War II to follow.

Hitler was convinced that German Jews were not only the cause of Germany’s defeat in World War I but also the main cause of Germany’s economic distress in the 1930s. But Hitler’s goal in the 1930s was not to kill them but rather to rid Germany of them. That’s when he offered to let every German Jew leave Germany.

Unfortunately, however, Hitler and the Nazis weren’t the only anti-Semites in the world. Antisemitism was everywhere, including right here in the United States, including within the U.S. government. U.S. officials didn’t want Germany’s Jews. They needed to stay in Nazi Germany, they felt. There was also the concern that Jewish immigrants would take jobs away from Americans in the midst of the Great Depression.

Now, keep in mind that if America had continued with its heritage of open borders, antisemitism within U.S. officials and other Americans would not have made any difference. German Jews could have come here without being impeded by U.S. immigration officials. Sure, they would have suffered abuse from anti-Semitic Americans, must as Latin American immigrants suffer abuse today, but at least they would have been alive once World War II broke out.

One of the most revealing aspects of this dark phenomenon occurred during a press conference in 1938 with President Franklin Roosevelt, who is reputed to be a man who loved “the poor, needy, and disadvantaged”:

Mr. President, can you tell us whether you feel that there is any place in the world where you could take care of mass emigration of the Jews from Germany-have you given thought to that?

THE PRESIDENT: I have given a great deal of thought to it.

Can you tell us any place particularly desirable?

THE PRESIDENT: No, the time is not ripe for that.

Have there been any comments or protests made to you concerning the destruction or damage of American property in Germany?

THE PRESIDENT: Nothing has come through on that; I imagine the Embassy is checking up on it.

You said nothing as yet on a possible protest to Germany; is there anything on that?

THE PRESIDENT: I cannot say anything on that.

Would you recommend a relaxation of. our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?

THE PRESIDENT’ That is not in contemplation; we have the quota system.

The “quota system”!

What is the “quota system”? The “quota system” is the essence of U.S. immigration controls and is one of the reasons why the United States has had an ongoing, perpetual, never-ending, decades-long immigration crisis.

The “quota system” forms the basis of a system of immigration controls. It consists of a government board that decides how many immigrant slots are going to be allotted to each country and what the qualifications are going to be for each immigrant.

The “quota system” is a system of central planning, one of the variations of socialism. Unlike a free market, which is what open immigration is, immigration controls rely on government bureaucrats to plan and direct immigration to the United States.

So, here Hitler was saying that he was wanted Jews to leave Germany and that he was willing to let them go. And here was Roosevelt saying that the U.S. government would not permit them to enter the United States because their numbers would exceed the numbers permitted by federal bureaucrats under the “quota system.”

One of the best manifestations of this phenomenon is what has gone down in history as the “voyage of the damned.” In 1939 — right before the outbreak of World War II — a German ocean liner named the MS St. Louis containing 907 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees, tried to land at Miami harbor. U.S. officials said no. Since the refugees would be entering the United States without permission, in violation of the “quota system” that comes with a system of immigration controls, U.S. officials refused to permit the ship to dock, knowing full well that the ship would have to return to Nazi Germany. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to shadow the ship to ensure the ship captain didn’t intentionally run the ship aground on American soil. Need I describe the reactions of the refugees or their family members and friends here in the United States? A great 1976 movie entitled Voyage of the Damned depicts what happened. You can read all about this sordid episode in U.S. immigration-control history on Wikipedia.

In response to the role that U.S. immigration controls played in the Holocaust, those who advocate immigration controls say the same thing that statists always say about the horrific results of their welfare-state programs and their warfare-state programs: “Please, judge us by our good intentions, not by the actual results of our statist programs.”

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.