The Trump Administration’s decision to separate the children of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers has created a popular uproar. So much so that the President felt compelled to rescind the Attorney General’s April decision within a week of the scenes of young children taken from their parents hitting television screens. The public was clearly aroused in opposition to these forced family separations. Elected officials, both Democratic and Republican, warned Trump of the likely electoral consequences of his actions if he failed to reverse course. Editorial writers throughout the country asserted, “this is not who we are!” They claimed the US had a long history of welcoming the distressed and unwanted. But this is hardly the case.
I call your attention to another episode involving the admission of children to the United States. In the immediate aftermath of the Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) on 9-10 November, 1938, when Jews throughout Germany were subjected to violent attacks by the Nazis and their well-wishers. Tens of thousands were thrown into concentration camps. More than a hundred were killed. Synagogues throughout the country were burned to the ground and, as David Wyman reports, “Terrorists even damaged Jewish hospitals, old people’s institutions, and children’s boarding schools and beat their occupants or forced them out into the night.”[i]Jewish children were particular targets for abuse.
On 9 January 1939, a delegation of Catholic and Protestant clergymen presented a petition to the Roosevelt administration proposing that an exemption be made to the 1924 Immigration Act (which established quotas based on national origins) in order to admit some 20,000 German children under the age of 15 over a two -year period. Neither FDR nor his advisors responded to this proposal.
A non-sectarian committee on German refugee children was then formed to exert pressure on Congress to enact legislation, which would permit an exemption to the quota system to allow the German Jewish children admission to the United States. Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat from New York, and Republican Congresswoman Edith Rogers from Massachusetts, introduced a resolution to permit the children’s admission to the country on an emergency basis. It was understood that the costs involved in caring for the children would be borne by private groups and individuals so that no federal expenditures would be necessary.
A joint House-Senate sub-committee on immigration held hearings during April 1939. A substantial list of eminent and widely respected individuals testified in support of the legislation. While the White House remained silent on the matter, newspaper editorials throughout the country endorsed the Wagner-Rogers resolution. Despite what appeared to be unstoppable momentum towards its passage the resolution failed to make its way out of the committee stage. German Jewish children would not be allowed admission to the country. What had happened?
Public opinion polls indicated that Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to permitting the children to enter the country. Further, the polls also disclosed a high percentage of Americans were strongly anti-Semitic, believing that Jews posed a serious threat to the country.[ii]Further, the Gallup polling organization reported that a majority of Americans were specifically opposed to the Wagner-Rogers legislation.
Additional testimony before the immigration sub-committee, however, also reflected another sice of popular opinion. Spokesmen for the American Legion and an alliance of various “patriotic” organizations – such as the Daughters of the American Revolution – warned of the threat posed by permitting these hapless refugees into the country. A majority of legislators on the sub-committee, largely southern Democrats and mid-western Republicans, argued that ‘charity begins at home’: so long as there were many American children in need, no young foreigners were entitled to special treatment.
If Roosevelt, a president widely admired among American Jews, had endorsed the Wagner-Rogers legislation and showed leadership on the question it would likely have made a difference. But we will never know since the President remained silent. In thinking about the current situation with children forcefully separated from their parents by American officials, Trump has certainly not remained silent. After initially endorsing the policy of separation he reversed course and expressed support for family re-unification, making a hasty U-turn after running into widespread public opposition. In both cases neither FDR nor Trump were exactly profiles in courage. Rather they simply followed what appeared to be the preferences of the American public.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. See his profile here.
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
[i]David Wyman, Paper Walls (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968), p.71.
[ii]Charles Herbert Stember, Jews in the Mind of America(New York: Basic Books, 1966), pp. 76-87.