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Trump, FDR, and the Plight of Refugees under Immigration Controls


Republican President Trump’s use of tear gas to prevent foreign citizens from entering the United States to claim refugee status under U.S. law brings to mind that Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt did the same thing in the 1930s.

Roosevelt, of course, is widely known among both Republicans and Democrats as a great humanitarian and a lover of the poor, needy, and disadvantaged. Unfortunately, those traits did not manifest themselves in FDR’s decision to use America’s system of immigration controls to prevent German Jews from entering the United States during the Adolf Hitler regime.

Let’s first place things in a historical context.

The United States was founded as a limited-government republic, which is a governmental structure that is completely opposite to a national-security state governmental structure, which Americans live under today. Under the republic type of governmental system, there was no Pentagon, military-industrial complex, CIA, or NSA.

That was how our American ancestors wanted it. If they had been told that the Constitution was going to bring into existence a national-security state, there is no doubt that they never would have approved the Constitution, which brought the federal government into existence. They would have chosen to continue operating under the Articles of Confederation, a type of governmental structure in which the federal government’s powers were so weak it didn’t even have the power to tax.

Under the republic form of government, the federal government had a small army, one that was sufficiently large to win wars against the Native American tribes but certainly nowhere near large enough to embroil the United States in foreign conflicts in Europe and Asia.

That was fine with the American people because they desired a foreign policy in which the U.S. government did not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” That was the title of a speech that John Quincy Adams delivered to Congress on the Fourth of July, 1821, in which Adams summarized the founding foreign policy of the United States.

Adams pointed out that there are lots of monsters in the world — brutal tyrants and dictators, oppression, famine, wars, criminals, and revolutions. But, he said, the U.S. government would not go abroad with military forces to save people from these monsters.

However, the United States also had a highly unusual policy with respect to immigration, one that sent the following message to people all over the world: If you are suffering from tyranny, oppression, or starvation and you are able and willing to escape, know that there is one place in the world where you can freely come and be certain that you will not be forcibly returned to your monstrous conditions.

America’s open-immigration policy was, needless to say, one of the most radical policies in world history. Other countries around the world took the opposite position, the position that the United States takes today, one that entails strict governmental control over who enters the country.

America’s system of open immigration lasted for more than 100 years. It is impossible to estimate the number of refugees whose lives were saved because of it. I would venture to say that many Americans today are alive because of that 100-year policy of open immigration.

That’s why the French gave the United States the Statue of Liberty — to honor America for its radical policy of open immigration.

That’s not to say there wasn’t prejudice against many of the immigrants. Italians. Germans. Irish. Poles. And more. They all suffered the insults and mistreatment from Americans who felt that they were polluting American culture with their foreign languages, customs, traditions, and beliefs. Despite the prejudice, however, the policy of open immigration remained in existence.

By the 1930s, all that had changed. By that time, the United States had adopted a policy of government-controlled immigration.

Moreover, in the 1930s the Hitler regime rose to power in Germany and immediately made it clear that Jews were no longer welcome in Germany. What many people don’t realize, however, is that Hitler did not immediately begin killing Jews. The Holocaust wouldn’t come until the middle of World War II. In the 1930s, Hitler’s message to German Jews was: Leave because we don’t want you here. And he was willing to let them go instead of killing them.

There was one big problem however: Officials around the world were as prejudiced against Jews as Hitler was. No government wanted them. That included the regime of Franklin Roosevelt, who had become president in 1932.

Remember: Under America’s founding system of open immigration, Jewish refugees from Germany would have been free to enter the United States without needing governmental permission. Now, under America’s new system of government-controlled borders, they needed that permission before they could come in.

Roosevelt refused to give the needed permission. He pointed out that under America’s new system of government-controlled immigration, which mirrored the immigration policy of all other countries in the world, America had a “quota system,” one that assigned a certain number of Germans who could enter the United States on an annual basis. The German Jews would just have to follow the law, stand in line, and wait for their number to be called as part of the annual quota assigned to Germany.

That meant, of course, that Germany’s Jews had to remain in Germany, where most of them would later murdered in the Holocaust. If no country is willing to accept refugees from tyranny and oppression, it stands the reason that the victims must simply stay where they are and die.

One of the biggest horror stories of Roosevelt’s regime and America’s system of immigration controls occurred with respect to what has gone down in history as the “Voyage of the Damned.” A ship named the MS St. Louis containing 937 Jewish refugees from Germany approach Miami Harbor in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The Roosevelt regime said no. Like Trump’s policy toward Central American refugees, not one single Jew would be permitted to land in the United States. To make sure that no one jumped ship and make it into the United States, Roosevelt had the U.S. Coast Guard surround the ship and be prepared to capture and return to the ship any Jew who dared to break U.S. immigration law.

Given that all other governments around the world took the same position, the ship captain had no choice but to turn the ship back toward Germany to return the Jewish refugees into Hitler’s clutches. Remember: This is what happens when no nation has an open-immigration policy — refugees who are escaping tyranny, oppression, or starvation are returned to their country of origin to die.

At the last minute, some of the European countries agreed to take the refugees. Those who were accepted by countries on the European continent ended up dying anyway once Hitler successfully invaded France.

But at least Roosevelt, like Trump, had succeeded in enforcing America’s system of immigration controls.

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.