The United States has long offered a golden opportunity. The promise of opportunity and safety for those who seek a new life by traveling to our borders and our shores. A hope to have a life of happiness with the ability to thrive. A chance to contribute to a community giving to them.
It is what we call The American Dream.
What has happened to that dream? The United States policies on immigration have changed over the years, particularly regarding refugees, unauthorized immigrants, and in supposed attempt to thwart terrorists from entering our country. Since the inception of the United States, limits have been placed on immigration. Favoritism is often placed on European immigrants. In 1965 a new law made it possible for immigrants to enter the United States from many countries worldwide. In recent years attempts have been made to drastically reduce immigration from certain countries, step up or enforce penalizations, and many in our country support the building of a wall at our southern border. In many ways, it feels like we are stepping backward in time in lieu of progressing.
Our country has acted on and implemented a similar type of policy in the past. During World War II when millions of families faced peril at the hands of hatred, they humbly asked for safe harbor in foreign nations. While many were granted that kindness, hundreds of thousands were instead denied. Some were even turned away when they arrived on ships just off shore and were informed by immigration officials that their documentation was denied, their ships were returned to their origin, and many met their grim fate.
The immigration laws here in the United States have been through quite a few changes since their inception. Under President Harding in 1921, The Emergency Quota Act resulted in the enforcement of immigration quotas on Ellis Island. The quota was not enforced at US consulates, however, resulting in a monthly passenger ship rush known as a “midnight race”. Passengers would attempt to reach Ellis Island within the monthly quota. A few years later Congress passed an additional law called the Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act. It was also called the National Origins Act, which was intended to solve the “midnight races” issues. This become a permanent immigration law. The Johnson-Reed Act was rather discriminatory and selective in nature. It required that all documentation be presented abroad, resulting in the receipt of visas for travel to the United States from embassies and consulates prior to travel to the United States.
In 1929 the immigration quota was further reduced by a cap. A series of laws in the 1930’s based on “national origin” limited the number of immigrants who could enter our country. When Jewish refugees tried to flee the Nazi’s, these laws largely prevented their safe harbor in our country. Given that many may not have had family established in the United States at the time, they had no one to vouch for them for the immigration process. Complicating their attempts to apply for refuge, at the time, the term “refugee” had no legal standing under our laws. Thus, Jewish refugees were at a particularly difficult disadvantage when applying to the United States. If the odds weren’t stacked against them enough, American citizens were struggling with the complications caused by the Great Depression, and a general anti-immigrant sentiment plagued our country due to fears that immigrants may take the few available jobs from struggling American families. Regardless of how much time has passed, some things remain the same.
The story of Anne Frank is likely known by many. I use it as an example of the time as it is a sadly it allows for a comparison and chronology of events that match up with a family that followed the process, submitted all of the proper documentation, and should have qualified to immigrate to the United States at the time. If only someone had taken the time to look at their documents. Their story illuminates how we as a nation failed during this period. Our quota system, and our fear failed this family and many more like them.
Born Annelies Marie Frank, on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany Anne was a young jewish girl with her whole life ahead of her. That was, until the rise of Hitler. She was given a diary and she loved to write in it. She became known posthumously through the publication of her diary. Her writings have been read world wide and serve as a voice of many lost to the Holocaust. Anne wrote about her experience as one of eight people hiding in an attic space for two years before being found by the Germans during the occupation of the Netherlands.
Otto Frank, Anne’s father tried desperately to obtain visas for his family to travel to the United States to escape the brutality of the gestapo. He later explained the steps he took and the heartbreak he felt when a 1940 bombing of the Rotterdam Consulate destroyed everything he submitted with the applications he submitted in 1938 for his family. None of the original documents he had supplied for a sponsored visa application could be recovered. All of them were original birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc. In desperation, Otto took further steps in hopes that a friend who was in charge of the United States Housing Department might be able to help him as he was also a mutual friend of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Nathan Straus Jr., the son of a co-owner in the department store Macy’s. Even with these rather impressive connections, Otto eventually found himself hiding his family in an annexed apartment at 263 Prinsengracht for two years until the fateful day when the Germans found them, separated his family, and sent them all to concentration camps.
|The Anne Frank House,|
|The hidden annex, accessed behind a bookcase|
With fears rising as Hitler’s regime spread across Europe, The U.S. government started to question if Jewish refugees were a security risk, and an anti-immigrant sentiment developed overall. So much so that dwindling quotas even went unfilled. Why were we filled with so much fear that we didn’t allow families to fill these quotas? A file like that of the Frank family sat for two years after it had been submitted for review abroad, and our quotas were still open and could have accepted more numbers. So many people lost their lives while we let bureaucracy dictate decisions of morality.
After being discovered, Anne spent the last year of her life in a concentration camp prior to her death at the age of fifteen. It is unknown whether she passed away in February or March of 1945 of Typhus. She spent her final days at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp without her diary. Anne’s father Otto was the only survivor of the eight people living in the attic space who were sent to the concentration camps. He returned to the attic and found Anne’s diary. The home located at Prinsengracht 263, where the secret annex is located, is now a museum dedicated to the memory and the life of Anne Frank.
|Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank|
There is sadly a great bit of similarity between the nature of what Otto and his family went through in the process of trying to obtain visas to enter our country to flee the Nazi’s, the climate of fear around national security and immigrants and today’s tone on immigrants. It is for this reason that I wanted to draw the comparison to this story and point out why we have our current day refugee laws. It is important that we honor the history that has given us insight, and not abandon what we have learned from it. We should not repeat it.
Six million European Jews were killed and hundreds of thousands more suffered from deplorable conditions in concentration camps or from the diseases they suffered from subhuman care they experienced during their time hiding from the Gestapo, Hitler’s military force.
After World War II roughly only about 5% of the American public indicated a willingness to allow for additional immigrants. Even with photographic documentation and proof of the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews at the hands of the gestapo. President Truman took it upon himself to solve the issues Congress and the American public weren’t capable or willing to agree upon themselves. He established the “Truman Directive”, which allowed for the issuance of priority visas under a set of provisions within the existing quota system. Most of the visas issued between December 1945 through July 1948 were to people of Jewish decent coming in from Europe after the Holocaust.
|An example of a Petition for Naturalization document|
The establishment of The International Refugee Organization (IRO), which was eventually taken over by the United Nations Commission on Refugees in 1951, which originated in 1946, and was implemented in 1948, was intended to help victims of displacement find their loved ones. The Displaced Persons Act, supported hesitantly by President Truman in 1948, allowed for up to 200,000 people displaced by conflict around the world to enter the United States. Additionally, it allowed for up to 50% of the unused remainder of the quota spaces to be filled by displaced applicants. Truman’s criticism of the bill was warranted. It focused primarily on applicants from Germany, Australia, and Italy. Excluding Jews and displaced people who had been in zones of Gestapo occupation. Congress later made an amendment to the bill. Geographical and chronological information that would have discriminated against people of Jewish descent was removed from the bill. Between 1948 and 1952 nearly 800,000 Jewish applicants entered the United States under The Displaced Persons Act.
The international community recognized the term refugee and gave it a specific legal status under international law at the 1951 Refugee Convention. A refugee was henceforth described as, “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear is unwilling to return to it.”
The 1951 Convention further defined a refugee’s rights as the following, “Refugees are granted the right to work, to housing, to education, to public assistance, to freedom of movement within the territory, and cannot be punished for illegal entry. Under Article 33, known as the “non-refoulement” provision, refugees cannot be returned against there will to a place in which they would be endangered, In exchange refugees must abide by the laws and regulations of the country of asylum. Those who have committed crimes against peace, war crimes, or non-political crimes outside of their country of refuge, are not eligible for refugee status.” These worldwide protective practices were expanded in 1967.
The United States opted to pass its own laws regarding refugees. In lieu of signing the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, in 1953 the Refugee Act defined a refugee as an “escapee” (fleeing communism), or an “expellee” (Ex: an ethnic German). This legislation was set to expire in 1956. Under President Johnson, in 1956, the Immigration and Nationality Act, or the Hart-Celler Act eliminated the “national origins” which complicated the quota system and now allowed for immigrants from southern European countries as well as from the continents of Asia and Africa to immigrate to The United States. This act allowed for 6% of the visas issued annually to be allocated among those escaping from a multitude of situations, including natural disasters. For this reason it resulted in refugees and immigrants to remain in one category under the immigration law structure.
|Bill Gates Quote, Source: DoubleQuotes.net|
“Parole” directives were issues by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson in 1958 and 1966 to assist Hungarian and Cuban refugees fleeing turbulent uprising in their countries, and in 1975 and 1977 Presidents Ford and Carter advocated for the assistance of several hundred thousand Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States. Many would later become US residents.
The United States Congress responded to the international community by passing the 1980 Refugee Act stating it, “is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” It further explained how the United States would go about following the United National Refugee Protocol. The United States had finally collectively caught up with President Truman’s example. Between 1980 and 2018 roughly 3,000,000 refugees have been allowed safe harbor in the United States.
|U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Emblem|
If a young Anne Frank could believe that something good could be found in even the most hardened of souls doing the worst humankind could think; we as a people should honor and care for others from the most beautiful place within us, the heart. Like Anne did. We can open our gates and our homes, place another chair at the table, and another glass can be filled. Those who are in peril today may be those who help us tomorrow. Today we feed our friends, tomorrow they may feed us. We orbit the sun together. We are all of the human race.
"It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality," Anne Frank wrote in 1944 in her diary, which helped personalize the tragedies experienced by millions of Jews. "It's a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
- Anne Frank