Trump's Immigration Order Signals Sharp Departure from Other Post-WWII Presidents

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
February 6, 2017

As "leader of the free world," every post-World War II US President has expressed some form of public support for refugees through speeches and White House statements.

With the refugee crisis of World War II, federal immigration and refugee policymaking in the United States adopted a humanitarian dimension by necessity. By the end of World War II, there were over 40 million refugees in Europe. The millions of refugees displaced by war and persecution led to the earliest development of an intricate framework that guides refugee and asylum law internationally. It is a framework that endures today. After the global traumas of World War II, every President has expressed a commitment to participation in the development of a global migration policy that considers larger geopolitical interests and that recognizes the importance of international human rights, of which refugee policy is a part.

We are now in the midst of a refugee crisis that is worse than the refugee crisis of World War II. In 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of refugees had risen to 65.3 million by the end of 2015. This reflected an increase of approximately 5.8 million refugee seekers from the prior year.

The painful memory of a xenophobic, nativist and isolationist immigration policy continues to haunt us in the United States. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, documents the voyage of a German transatlantic liner, the St. Louis, from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba, in 1939. The St. Louis carried 937 passengers, nearly all European Jews fleeing the Third Reich. After Cuba denied entry to most of the passengers, they attempted to set sail to Miami, Florida, seeking refugee status from the United States. On June 6, 1939, after the United States failed to grant permission for the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to take some of the refugees aboard the St. Louis, 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when the Nazis gained control of Europe. According to the Holocaust Museum, 278 survived the Holocaust and 254 died.

For decades after World War II, there was a call to end the National Origins Act of 1924 and the racial sciences of eugenics that had supported it. The National Origins Act established a restrictive immigration framework to block immigrants from Asia and Africa. It also greatly restricted immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, specifically targeting Italians, Slavs and Eastern European Jews. The Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis fleeing the Third Reich were informed that the immigration quotas set by the National Origins Act could not be lifted for them. As Duke University historian Claudia Koontz documents in The Nazi Conscience (2003), Nazi leaders "expressed admiration for the United States as a model both because anti-miscegenation laws and immigration quotas seemed so clear-cut and because public opinion [in the United States] accepted them as natural."

Read the full piece at Jurist Twenty