Two of the biggest stories in the past couple of months have been about travel and immigration. First, with the fall of Afghanistan, we have opened our borders to refugees escaping the tyranny of the Taliban. And then just last week, President Biden has placed travel restrictions on eight African nations. What is interesting is that both occurrences, an opening and a closing, have drawn the most criticism from the right while the praise came from the left. As most readers of this column know, immigration and travel restrictions are not in any way new and, historically speaking, we have been having similar debates for more than a hundred years.
We do not have to go back very far to find travel restrictions. In Trump’s last year of office, he placed similar restrictions on African nations because of COVID. The only difference then was the right praised his actions while leaders on the left condemned them as racists. Nancy Pelosi released a statement that said, “The Trump administration’s expansion of its outrageous, un-American travel ban threatens our security, our value, and the rule of law. The sweeping rule, barring more than 350 million individuals from predominantly African nations from traveling to the United States, is discrimination disguised as policy.”
While this type of hypocrisy is expected today, barring travel or even those escaping persecution go back much further, and with some of our most respected presidents. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter put a ban on all travel and immigration from Iran. The previous year the Islamic Revolution took over the country and held American embassy workers hostage for what turned out to be 444 days. Even though many Iranians worked with the U.S. and feared the revolution, they were cut off from seeking refuge in the U.S.
Even more tragic were the events in Europe leading up to WWII. You have probably heard the Holocaust referred to as the “final solution.” The meaning behind this term is that the eradication of the Jews in death camps was not the Nazis’ first attempt to solve the “Jewish problem.” Earlier plans included shipping Jews off to somewhere like Madagascar or, better yet, push for Jews to immigrate out of Europe on their own. As the Nazis began to make life difficult for the Jews by clamping down on their rights, many Jews did try to immigrate to neighboring nations, but soon those nations came under Nazi influence and their troubles began again. The one bastion of hope for many of these fleeing Jews was America.
America, however sympathetic to their plight, was not really excited about opening its doors to thousands of Jews. To appear helpful President Roosevelt organized a conference in France to discuss with national leaders how to help. Thirty-two nations arrived and tried to help Hitler solve his “Jewish Problem,” but most of them, including the U.S., in the end determined that, when it came to Jews, they were full. There was no room at the inn, you might say.
The most tragic example came in 1938 after what is known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. Jews were already being persecuted, but after that night those who could leave knew they needed to. Several hundred Jews boarded a ship called the St. Louis heading for Cuba, hoping they could stay there until they gained access to the U.S. Upon their arrival, the Cubans revoked their visas and would not let them off the ship. Out of desperation, the ship sailed to Florida, believing America to be a land of freedom. Once again, they were not allowed to disembark even after pleas to Roosevelt himself who refused them out of political necessity. Giving up hope, the ship finally sailed to Canada only to be refused one more time before returning to Europe. The Coast Guard even followed them until the ship was well out of sight of the U.S. coast to make sure no one jumped off. Once home, half of the refugees, some 254 Jews, eventually lost their lives to the “Final Solution.”
While there is plenty of fault to go around, it is also true that no one could have ever imagined the Nazis trying to exterminate an entire race. All nations were suffering the economic effects of the Great Depression and were concerned with more mouths to feed. There was also a growing fear that bringing in European refugees of any race or ethnicity had the potential of bringing in communists. Stopping African tourists because of Covid is not exactly the same thing as stopping Jews during the Holocaust, but it is interesting that both times it was done in the name of protection to the U.S.
As always, I am not trying to support or condone the President’s policies but simply to shed some light on the subject. So, make your arguments and support your stances on immigration and travel bans, but if you use history try to get the details correct. When these same restrictions were passed under Trump, he was called a racist by the same people putting the policies in place today. Also, remember as much as we want it to be true, America has not always been open to all immigrants, even those fleeing repression at home.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.