History Lesson 5: U.S. Immigration Policy and the Holocaust

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This lesson examines the struggles within the Roosevelt administration and the reasons behind its policies toward Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. It tells the story of the St. Louis, an ill-fated passenger ship full of Jewish refugees that was not permitted to land in the United States. It looks at the work of the War Refugee Board. In the activity, students role play members of a United Nations conference meeting after World War II and create an international treaty on refugees.



Students will be able to:

  • Describe the policy of the Roosevelt administration toward Jewish refugees and the reasons behind this policy.
  • Evaluate the policy options that the Roosevelt administration had and decide on the best policy.

Standards Addressed:

National U.S. History Standard 25: Understands the causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs. III (6) Understands the dimensions of Hitler's "final solution" and the Allies' response to the Holocaust and war crimes (e.g., . . . Roosevelt's immigration policy toward Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany)

California History-Social Science Standard 11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II. (5) Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front, including . . . the response of the administration to Hitler's atrocities against Jews and other groups . . . .

Notes: This activity leads to the next lesson, which discusses the actual international treaty in some detail. If you are not going to do the next lesson, it might be helpful to debrief this activity with some information from the next lesson.

U.S. Immigration Policy and the Holocaust

During World War II, several hundred thousand American died and the United States spent billions of dollars to defeat Nazi tyranny in Europe. Only after the war was the full horror of Hitler's rule revealed. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust. The Nazis also slaughtered other groups that they branded as undesirable: gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and other political enemies. The legacy of this era remains with us today and still raises many troubling questions.

Refugees Not Wanted

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, Americans were struggling to survive the greatest economic depression the country had ever seen. Many Americans feared that needy immigrants would take precious jobs or place an added strain on an already burdened economy.

America's immigration laws placed quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States from other countries. In 1939, the quota allowed for 27,370 German citizens to immigrate to the United States. In 1938, more than 300,000 Germans-mostly Jewish refugees-had applied for U.S. visas (entry permits). A little over 20,000 applications were approved. Beyond the strict national quotas, the United States openly denied visas to any immigrant "likely to become a public charge." This ruling proved to be a serious problem for many Jewish refugees. Most had lost everything when the Nazis took power, and they might need government assistance after they immigrated to the United States.

Shortly after she was appointed to the cabinet, Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt's secretary of labor, proposed an executive order on refugees and immigration. Perkins suggested that the State Department should give priority to immigrants seeking refuge from racial or religious persecution. The State Department objected to this order because it would antagonize relations with Germany and alienate jobless American citizens. FDR never issued the order, and State Department officials in Europe continued to reject many visa applications from Jewish refugees.

In September 1935, Nazi Germany passed laws that deprived German Jews of their citizenship. Without citizenship, Jews were legally defenseless. Many lost their jobs and property. Hitler also targeted with violence and persecution countless thousands of gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals, and even the physically and mentally impaired. With so many Germans fleeing their homeland, the State Department temporarily eased immigration quotas. In 1936, the State Department approved visas for about 7,000 German refugees. By 1938, that number had increased to more than 20,000. But an opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans still opposed admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees into the United States. Despite pleas by American human-rights organizations, the U.S. State Department refused to increase the German quota any further.

European refugees

Denied entry to the United States, these European refugees line the
deck of their ship during a refueling stop.
(U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Wide World Photo)

On the Eve of War

In May 1939, only a few months before war began in Europe, a passenger ship called the St. Louis left Germany carrying nearly a thousand refugees, most of them Jews. Many of these people had already qualified for, but had not yet received, American visas. They arranged for temporary Cuban tourist visas that would let them wait outside of Germany for U.S. visas. When the St. Louis reached Havana, however, the Cuban government had changed its visa regulations. It refused to allow most of the refugees to land.

Forced to leave Cuban waters, the St. Louis sailed up the Florida coast. The U.S. Coast Guard followed close behind to prevent any passengers from swimming ashore. The State Department refused to allow the refugees to land without special legislation by Congress or an executive order from the president. Efforts by American Jewish organizations to work out a compromise failed. The desperate passengers aboard the St. Louis sent President Roosevelt a telegram pleading their case. He never replied.

Political realities may have influenced Roosevelt's decision to remain silent. Most Americans opposed entering the approaching European war. Many felt that America's best interest lay in avoiding foreign conflicts. Others were disillusioned by the U.S. intervention in World War I and wanted to avoid the loss of American lives. These views had strong support in Congress. In addition, Roosevelt knew that the United States was not yet prepared for war and was reluctant to antagonize the Nazi regime.

Finally, the St. Louis returned to Europe and several nations granted asylum to the refugees. But when Hitler's troops marched through Europe, the Nazis eventually caught most of the St. Louis' ill-fated passengers and sent them to concentration camps.

On the eve of World War II, a bill that would have admitted Jewish refugee children above the regular quota limits was introduced in Congress. President Roosevelt took no position on the bill, and it died in committee in the summer of 1939. Polls at the time indicated that two-thirds of Americans opposed taking in Jewish refugee children.

The War Years

At the beginning of World War II, the U.S. government did not believe reports that Hitler was carrying out a plan to murder millions of European Jews. But by November 1942, the evidence was overwhelming. Once again, American Jewish leaders appealed to Roosevelt: If the president would ask Congress to change the immigration laws, more refugees could escape the Holocaust. Again, FDR refused. Instead, he joined the British in condemning the Nazi genocide (mass killing) of Jews.

Wartime brought on a sharp decline in immigration when the government imposed even stricter visa regulations. Officials feared that enemy spies and saboteurs might enter the country in the guise of refugees. But as the American public became aware of the enormity of the Nazi atrocities, people began to demand that the United States do something to rescue the remaining Jewish people of Europe. In November 1943, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe introduced a rescue resolution in Congress.

Once again, the State Department objected. This angered Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., who happened to be Jewish and who was appalled by the Nazi mass killings. Since 1933, the State Department had opposed nearly every attempt to help Jewish refugees. On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau met with FDR and summarized a report prepared by his department. The report documented the long history of State Department obstructionism in refugee matters. (This report was originally titled, "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.")

In response, Roosevelt signed an executive order instructing Congress to implement most of the provisions of the rescue resolution. The order created a War Refugee Board "to take all measures within its policy to rescue victims of enemy oppression in imminent danger of death."

The War Refugee Board

Soon after its creation, the War Refugee Board (WRB) aggressively mobilized rescue activities. It issued war-crimes warnings and sent food parcels into concentration camps. In the summer of 1944, it launched a dramatic operation.

With the cooperation of the Swedish government, the WRB sent a Swedish businessman, Raoul Wallenberg, to Hungary to work as an embassy official. Wallenberg was to implement a plan to rescue 200,000 Hungarian Jews who were about to be deported to the Auschwitz death camp. He rented buildings and placed them under Swedish diplomatic protection. Wallenberg let thousands of Jews stay there in this safe haven. He issued special protective passports to many others. With WRB support, Wallenberg's efforts saved more than 20,000 lives. Wallenberg disappeared when the Soviet Army occupied Hungary at the end of the war. His fate is unknown, although in 1956, the Soviets claimed that they had discovered a report of Wallenberg's death in 1947 in a Soviet prison.

The WRB also established sanctuary outside of Europe for rescued refugees. Fighting opposition from the State Department, Congress, and the public, the WRB convinced FDR to allow one group of Jewish Italian refugees to occupy an old army camp near Oswego, New York. To avoid violating the immigration laws, the WRB brought these victims of Nazi persecution into the country as prisoners of war.

The War Refugee Board has been credited with saving perhaps 200,000 Jews during the final months of the war. "What we did was little enough," said WRB director John Pehle. "It was late. Late and little, I would say." Yet others believe that, given the circumstances before the war and even during the war itself, the Roosevelt administration cannot be blamed for failure to rescue more victims of the Holocaust. The question remains a topic of debate, even today.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Why do you think the United States did not offer to let in more Jewish refugees before World War II? During it?
  2. Are there any parallels today to the issues of the war years? Consider the following questions:
    (a) The United States puts a cap on the number of refugees it will accept each year. Do you think the United States should have such a cap? Explain.
    (b) Today the only requirement that the United States puts on refugees is whether they have a "well-grounded" fear of persecution in their home country. Do you think the United States, before accepting a refugee should also consider an immigrant's job skills and financial stability?
    (c) What should U.S. policy be when refugees attempt to enter the country by boat without proper authorization?


What Could America Do?

Imagine that it is 1951, six years after the end of World War II. The tragic experience of Jewish and other refugees in the war is well known. The United Nations is having a conference on refugees. The goal of the conference is to draft a treaty on how nations should treat refugees. Once it is drafted, nations will sign the treaty and it will become international law.

In this activity, students will role play members of the convention and draft provisions of the treaty.

  1. Divide the class into small groups.
  2. Each group should discuss, decide, and write down answers to these questions:
    a. For purposes of the treaty, what should be the definition of a refugee?
    b. What obligation should nations have in the following situations?
    (1) A person claiming to be a refugee tries to enter your country?
    (2) A person in your country illegally asks for asylum because he or she claims to be a refugee?
    c. What factors or reasons might cause countries to deny refugees from entering their country? Do you think any of these reasons should be valid to prevent refugees from entering?
  3. Have the groups report back and discuss each question. See if the class can agree on the outlines for an international treaty on refugees.
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