President Barack Obama and various religious groups stated their strong support for bringing fleeing Syrian refugees into the United States in the fall of 2015. In their effort to convince other Americans of the justice of bringing in those fleeing wars in the Middle East, they drew an analogy to the Holocaust and the ship the MS St. Louis which was turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada and sent back to Europe, where the Jewish passengers perished in concentration camps.
For their part, various Republicans stated their opposition to admitting so many refugees at this time due to security concerns. They dismissed the analogy to the Holocaust for multiple reasons including the principal facts that in the past there was no terrorism going on in the United States, and the Jews in Europe were ordinary civilians not bearing any arms or involved in any fights.
There is room for an honest conversation and approach. Here, I lay out my family’s path to America and lessons that could be applied to refugees today.
My paternal great-grandfather came to the USA from Russia in 1904. He fled the various pogroms that were going on in Russia over many years, including the significant Kishinev Pogrom in 1903. He set out for America alone via Great Britain. Once he established himself in New York City, he sent for his wife and two children to join him in their new home nine months later.
Many other Jews were leaving Russia during those years for the United States. The USA was also admitting many Irish, British, Scandinavians, Italians, Hungarians, Germans and Austrians at the same time. Each group spoke a different language and they all needed to adopt to the common language and culture of America.
And they did.
Fleeing en Masse
My maternal grandmother fled Austria with her immediate family after Kristallnacht in December 1938. They were part of an enormous wave of Jews fleeing Europe in those months before the start of World War II.
The whole family fled at one time. Before coming to the US, they were sent to Cuba where they were vetted and processed. My grandmother and her two children were allowed to travel to New York three months after their arrival, however, her husband was not permitted to join them right away. My grandfather waited in Cuba for over a year while the US vetted his background, and protected the jobs and security of Americans by slowly introducing thousands of men.
He waited in Cuba with hundreds of other men in the same predicament.
Lessons for Today
When my paternal great-grandfather came to America in 1904, he was part of a wave of immigrants coming to the US for a variety of reasons from a variety of countries. Over five decades (1880-1930), the US more than doubled its population (from 50 million to 123 million), while the percent of foreign-born people in the country grew to a high of 15 percent.
The situation today is different:
- Many foreign-born Americans today. Today, the United States is already at a 15% foreign-born population, the highest level in 200 years. Will such a huge and growing percentage hurt the US economy as they migrate into the workforce? Consider that 100 years ago the country was expanding and there were many jobs for manual labor; today the job market requires more skills and technical expertise.
- Concentration of New Immigrants’ Culture. The immigrants that are coming today do not speak dozens of different languages (Hungarian; Russian; Italian; Swedish; English; German; etc.), but predominantly, just one: Spanish. Such a large concentration has hurt Spanish integration into American society where many communities remain Spanish-speaking only or bilingual, at best. The US instituted affirmative action programs uniquely for these Spanish-speakers, while no other immigrant group is afforded such assistance. Will a large concentration of new Arabic speakers create another permanent sub-group in the US?
- Current Battlefield. The United States has been targeted by various radical Islamic groups. When the MS St. Louis was turned away in 1939, America was not attacked and not at war. The battlefield is now here. Therefore, it is more time-sensitive and important to sort those fleeing harm in the Middle East, from those that intend to harm the United States.
The US should indeed consider the history of Jews fleeing Europe before WWII, but appreciate the differences when it is now considering the admittance of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The current refugees are using the methodology of my paternal great-grandfather and sending men before the rest of the families. According to the UNHCR, 62% of current immigrants in the Mediterranean area are men. They are fleeing into Turkey and then quickly spreading throughout Europe. That is a bad and potentially dangerous situation and the US should pivot to a more logical approach:
- Processing: When refugees come en masse, it is important to have a place to process the people. Displaced Person camps are not a new phenomenon. The various Islamic countries which are allies with the US such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states should not only permanently settle many of their fellow Arabs and Muslims, but should establish DP camps so there is time for other countries to appropriately vet those fleeing harm, while keeping the refugees out of harm’s way.
- Woman and children first. While not all men are terrorists, the vast majority of terrorists are men. As in the 1930s, women and children should be admitted first while extra vetting is done on the men. Canada has taken such approach. In addition to giving time for more extensive background checks, it allows the country to more gradually introduce a large number of adult men into society.
Most men are not terrorists and most Muslims are not terrorists. But the majority of people attacking the US and its allies are Muslim men. Proper time and attention is needed to protect people.
Jews from Europe in the 1930s went through a long process of coming to America. The lesson of WWII is not simply to not turn back refugees to the place where they are fleeing like America did with the MS St. Louis. It is also to use a system to effectively admit refugees.
All governments must take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of its citizens as it welcomes new immigrants. It is shameful that there is finger-pointing and name-calling from both Democratic and Republican parties as the country attempts to welcome those fleeing war and prosecute those seeking war.
We should incorporate the best suggestions of both parties to help the refugees while placing priority on protecting Americans.
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