News & Views

MS St. Louis

When “Never Again” Becomes “Here We Go Again”

Remembering the Jewish refugees who were turned away 85 years ago, as the President’s recent Executive Order repeats our fateful failure.

How ironic, that two days before the 85th anniversary of the turning away of 937 Jews seeking asylum, our President issued an Executive Order placing a cap on those who can enter our country at our Southern border, including those seeking asylum. Violating our Constitution and our promise, “never to forget” the murder of those who we could have saved, our country is once again gripped by outrageous levels of xenophobia the likes of which we have not seen since the 1920’s and 30’s. And we are just as likely now, as we were then, to suffer not only moral standing in the world but also economic ruin. Only today, the threats are even larger – not only to our economy but also to our democracy and to our role in fueling the fires of violence and war rather than fulfilling our legacy as a beacon of hope for the “tired, the poor and the wretched masses yearning to breathe free”.  

85 years ago today, a ship containing 937 persons seeking safety from persecution by the Nazis, sailed from Europe holding entry visas to Cuba. The entry visas were the best that they could obtain since most other countries had turned down their pleas for assistance. Upon arrival in Cuba, however, the captain of the ship was informed that the visas would not be accepted. Cuba had changed its mind and would not let the passengers disembark. A child on the ship, who ultimately survived the drama, vividly remembers seeing her father, who had gone to Cuba before her and her mother, waving frantically from a small boat near the shore. The child, Ronnie Breslow (formerly Renate Reutlinger), and her mother were ultimately sent back to Europe, they survived and, a year after being locked in a camp, they made it to the U.S. – to Pennsylvania specifically. But that frantic wave was the last time that Ronnie would see her father for a year. And of the 937 persons who had sought safety, approximately 600 were not as lucky as Ronnie. Upon their forced return to Europe, they were deported to death camps where they perished.

For a brief period after World War II ended, the United States and the world were remorseful about their roles in failing to save millions of people who sought refuge and were turned away. The Geneva Convention, creating an international definition for “refugee”, was passed and all of the signatories, including the United States, made annual commitments to take refugees in and provide them safety and a new home. In 1980, the Refugee Resettlement Act was passed, which created a structure for resettlement of refugees within the United States. But amidst all of this progress, worldwide displacement due to discriminatory and failed governments has ballooned. More than 110 million people seek safety for themselves and their children and that number grows everyday. Climate change has created deserts where once farming villages thrived and governments have done nothing to aid those farmers and their families, to secure the water supply, to ensure that the children don’t starve to death or die of thirst. And violence has erupted across the globe to protect dwindling water supplies and to enlarge countries with the resources of other countries or people. And so, those that aren’t left behind to die, flee, supposedly overwhelming our country. 

But in an even greater irony, we create laws directed towards keeping people out in a moment when our country needs people to come in. The truth is that populations all over the United States, in cities, in towns, in rural America, in the South and in the North and in the East and in the West have declined significantly. Our birth rate has been steadily declining for two decades. Our mortality rate has been increasing because of gun violence and COVID. There is a staffing crisis in virtually every industry from healthcare to trucking and everything in between. Immigrants expand our tax base (even undocumented immigrants pay taxes through a government issued number called an ITIN), create businesses that employ Americans and bring their unique, other culture perspective to problem solving which leads to innovation. And immigrants who fled persecution and then become American citizens, value, above all else, the right to vote. They know what it’s like to live during failed governments and want to do everything in their power to keep the democratic principles which generations of Americans hold dear, thriving and strong.  

So forgive us if we don’t see immigration as a crisis but rather, an opportunity. We have the opportunity to solve our own problems – demographic, economic and political – as well as to take leadership in working with our allies on ensuring humane, welcoming stabilization of the displaced. Yet two days ago, all that we learned, all that we created and all that we have stood for suffered a critical blow with the announcement of the President’s Executive Order to shut the border down. Our opportunity is being squandered and “never again” is becoming, “here we go again”.

On this anniversary of “the Voyage of the Damned” as the St. Louis became known, reflect on where we are going as well as where we have been. Express your concerns about our government’s continual focus on the wrong issue – the issue isn’t, after all, how to keep people out. The issue is, how do we bring them in? How do we welcome? How do we use our technology to solve the problems of security vetting while simultaneously welcoming people that we desperately need to settle in our country, enrich our lives and our communities and strengthen what it means to be an American? Demand that our country return to being the beacon that it was meant to be and take leadership, morally and politically, in addressing worldwide displacement with compassion and strategic initiative.