Echoes of history in U.S. refugee policy

tags: immigration, refugees

Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Guilderland. His book, "The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History," was published in 2015 by SUNY Press. 

In January 1944, at the strong urging of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., Roosevelt created a War Refugee Board, committing the U.S. government "to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death." It was a bold declaration. But the board's work was very modest. It sponsored some rescue work and enlisted the cooperation of rescue organizations and foreign governments, but with limited impact.

Roosevelt remained indifferent to appeals to admit significant numbers of refugees. As pressure built, though, he took one highly publicized but small-scale step on June 8, 1944: the establishment of what he called "Safe Haven" for up to 1,000 refugees at Fort Ontario, an unused Army installation in Oswego.

The military base was federal property, which would discourage resistance from state authorities. The local community was supportive, seeing it as a partial revival of the base that would boost the economy. It was an election year, and creation of the center would placate Jewish voters and advocates of action to rescue potential victims of Hitler's slaughter without alienating immigration restrictionists and anti-Semitic voters. The refugees for the camp would be selected from refugees streaming into Italy as Allied forces liberated that country, helping relieve a burden on military authorities. To avoid accusations that this was really a Jewish rescue effort, the president ordered that the group should include "a reasonable proportion of the various categories of persecuted people." The refugees would enter "outside of the regular immigration procedure." At the end of the war, the president reassured people, "they will be returned to their homelands."...

The experiment soon soured. Critics grumbled that the camp was a violation of immigration laws. Republicans criticized the president for not getting congressional approval. Safe Haven's "guests" grew restless, demanding more freedom to leave the camp. A few found the confinement intolerable and returned to their home countries despite harrowing wartime conditions.

Read entire article at Times Union (Albany, NY)

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