As the 1930s went on, authoritarian states across Europe clamped down on political opponents and religious minorities in shocking displays of barbarity. These scenes prompted one Coal Region newspaper editor to consider changing America’s draconian immigration laws.
Tallie Evans of the Pittston Gazette penned an editorial that thoughtfully considered the situation as millions of Europeans were expelled from their homes and rumblings of a coming war grew increasingly loud. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the First World War’s conclusion, they wrote about America being a nation of refugees and that the nation needed to reconsider its closed-door policies in the face of autocracy abroad.
From the Pittston Gazette, November 10, 1938:
World Refugee Situation Demands Careful Study
It would be interesting to know just how many of us who now live in America are living here because of some acute wave of tyranny or persecution in Europe.
A few generations ago, each one of the periodic up-surges of repression on the continent sent a flood of new immigrants to America. People came over by the thousand, fleeing from every form of autocracy; America received them gladly, and was so proud of the ability to take them in that a Democratic Party platform in 1856 boasted that the country was “the asylum of the oppressed of every nation.”
But times have changed. The oppression goes on – in forms which make some of the 19th century abuses look mild – but America’s gates are closed. Under the current immigration law, only a small fraction of the host that formerly came is admitted. The most that can enter in any one year now is 150,000.
Now that immigration law was not passed hastily. Americans have had a good many years to observe the workings of the melting pot, and it was perfectly obvious that in many ways it was not working so well. When the tide of immigrants was running around 1,000,000 a year, it seemed as if fundamental traits in American character and American life were in danger of being submerged, and there was reason to fear that the nation was taking in new arrivals faster than it could hope to digest them.
So restrictions were voted, with the approval of the vast majority of Americans, and there is small chance that a return to the old era of unrestricted immigration would win much approval. Yet we might as well realize that we are facing a new situation in Europe, and that both our humanity and our traditions require us to examine it very carefully.
For the refugee situation abroad is worse than ever before. The great authoritarian states are calmly exiling people by the thousands, and innumerable tragic cases these people have literally nowhere on earth to go. Among these exiles are men of talent, even of genius; considered by and large, they could make valuable contributions to any country which offered them asylum.
It is not easy to say that a nation with 10,000,000 unemployed should open its gates to thousands of newcomers. Yet the idea of offering a haven to some of Europe’s refugees at least reserves prayerful consideration.
Henry Goddard Leach recently pointed out in Forum Magazine that our times of greatest immigration have been our times of greatest prosperity, and that cutting down on immigration did not save us from the Great Depression of 1929. Perhaps some relaxation of our barriers could be accomplished without making our economic situation worse; perhaps the infusion of new blood might even be a help.
In any case, the refugee situation is one which we cannot dismiss offhand. If we can do anything, we should; and we ought to study the situation very thoughtfully before saying that we can’t.
The United States government did not act on these ideas until it was too late. Nativist sentiment, protectionist economic views, and isolationist foreign policy meant that the administration of Franklin Roosevelt tied its hand and did little. Ships of Jewish refugees were turned away. Millions were essentially trapped in Europe without a home or a future.
In September 1939, the authoritarian states launched the Second World War and sealed the fate of those unlucky enough to flee across the Atlantic.
This editorial and the arguments of the 1930s are worthy of reconsidering in our own time.
Featured Image: Jewish refugees flee in the face of German military advances in 1940 (NY Times)