U.S. Immigration Policy and the Jewish Refugee Crisis of the 1930s

Ron Berger —

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The mere act of remembering, however, does not guarantee that the lessons of history will be learned. Thus, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day of January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump engaged in two actions that remind us of Santayana’s warning. One was his call for remembering “the victims, survivors, heroes” of the Holocaust, which omitted specific mention of the killing of Jews; this omission was a departure from a bipartisan precedent set by previous presidents. The other was that Trump chose this day to issue an executive order banning Muslims from seven countries, including desperate refugees fleeing deprivation and persecution, from entering the United States.

The omission issue is notable because Trump’s chief political advisor, Steve Bannon, has a history of promoting anti-Semitic, white nationalists who deny that Jews were the particular target of the Nazi extermination program known as the Final Solution. To be sure, Jews were not the only civilian population that was victimized during the Nazi era, but critics think that Trump was flirting with Holocaust denial.

The executive order is notable given the blemished history of the US’s response to the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s, and it is this issue that is of more concern to me in this article. If we are going to invoke the past to shed light on current events, in the hope that we may avoid repeating it, the public needs to be familiar with the historical record. With this in mind, I offer a succinct account of US immigration policy toward European Jews in the 1930s.

* * *

Practically speaking, no nation can be expected to take in all the people who wish to enter; and in the 1920s US immigration law had established specific limits on the number of people who would be allowed to immigrate in any given year from any given country. The quotas for different countries were set at a small percentage of those already residing in the US, but born in that foreign country, in 1890. The year 1890 was chosen because it occurred prior to the large influx of eastern and southern Europeans (mainly Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews) and was designed to favor those of Anglo‑Saxon descent. This approach reflected a view that the Immigration Restrictionist League (IRL) had been lobbying for since 1894. It was the IRL’s view, now enshrined in US policy, that the government needed to safeguard the racial and ethnic purity of the population. Thus Great Britain alone received 43 percent of the 153,774 annual quota slots, although Germany received 17 percent, the second highest allotment of any country in the world.

In 1930, in the midst of a devastating economic depression, President Herbert Hoover issued an executive order further restricting immigration by more narrowly interpreting existing immigration law that already denied visas to all persons who were “likely to become a public charge” (LPC), that is, who were unable to financially support themselves. According to historians Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut, the LPC stipulation “was originally aimed at persons who lacked physical or mental skills required for constructive employment,” but it was now construed to include “anyone unlikely to obtain a job under current market conditions.” Throughout the 1930s and the war years the annual immigration quota was never filled beyond 54 percent, and this was not due to a lack of demand, especially from Jews.

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and the first female cabinet member in US history, favored reversal of the Hoover order and a liberalization of immigration quotas to accommodate visa applicants seeking to avoid persecution in Germany. While the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was under the auspices of the Labor Department, the State Department had jurisdiction over the issuance of visas by US consuls abroad; and Perkins had learned that since 1930 State Department officials had been instructing their consuls in Germany to reduce the number of issued visas to 10 percent of allowable quota levels.

Both Roosevelt appointees and career bureaucrats in the State Department, who were generally upper‑class elites who were insensitive if not hostile to non‑Anglo‑Saxon immigrants, were among the staunchest opposition to reversing this policy. They argued that the State Department’s primary responsibility was to protect the national interest and that this interest was best served by neutrality on the question of Germany’s treatment of its own citizens. State Department officials also believed that the economy could not absorb more people and that liberalizing immigration policy would provoke an anti‑immigration public backlash that might induce Congress to pass legislation reducing quotas even further.

For the most part, prominent Jews weighed in on the side of immigration reform. Roosevelt had never hesitated to include Jews among his top advisors or to appoint them to prominent positions. Among them were Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and US Supreme Court Judge Felix Frankfurter, who tried to persuade the president to modify his restrictionist stance. Representatives of influential Jewish organizations had access to Roosevelt as well. Although the president tactfully listened to these men, his openness to Jewish appeals was largely symbolic, aimed at mollifying them without making any promises, and he generally sided with the restrictionists.

jewish-refugees-feature-heroPolitically, Roosevelt had little to gain and much to lose by a policy that favored increased immigration of Jews. Public opinion polls conducted in the late 1930s and early 1940s revealed less than hospitable attitudes towards immigrants in general and Jews in particular, with 67-83 percent of respondents opposing the liberalization of immigration quotas to help refugees and about two‑thirds wanting to keep refugees out altogether, even objecting to a one‑time exception that would have permitted 10,000 children to enter outside of the quota limits. One poll taken after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom—in which Nazi troops attacked Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues; and hundreds of Jews were killed, countless injured, and some 26,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps—found that 94 percent disapproved of Nazi treatment of German Jews, but another poll found that nearly half of the respondents thought that the persecution of Jews was partly their own fault. In addition, various polls found that 35-40 percent said they would actively support or sympathize with policies that were unfavorable to Jews; 15-24 percent thought that Jews were a menace to the US; more than half considered Jews greedy and dishonest; a third to a half believed that Jews had too much power in business, politics, and government (a figure that rose to 56 percent during the war years); and a fifth wanted to drive Jews out of the country altogether.

hqdefaultNevertheless, there were times when the evolving events of the Nazi period created a political opportunity for advocates of change. As long as the INS remained in the Labor Department, Perkins had some leverage over immigration policy, and the State Department was willing to make some modest accommodations if Roosevelt approved of them. The Nazis program of legalized discrimination against Jews that culminated in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which denied Jews the rights of German citizenship, did not go unnoticed, and at least one US consul in Germany reported that his office had been inundated with requests for visas.

Up to this time advocates of immigration reform had proposed various remedies. Perhaps children, spouses, and parents of current US residents could be treated more leniently. Or US relatives or friends could be allowed to post a bond to guarantee that an immigrant would not become a public charge. Additionally, some of the red tape required of applicants who had to submit copies of documents (such as birth certificates, military records, and police dossiers) that the German government made difficult to obtain could be waived.

The Nuremberg laws provided a new political context that gave reform advocates some additional moral leverage. Roosevelt felt compelled to make some symbolic gesture of concern, for instance, by making public statements that condemned what the Nazis were doing. He spoke out in favor of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine (now Israel) and urged the British who controlled Palestine to keep this area open for Jewish immigration. He also made it known that he would appreciate some leniency from the State Department on immigration policy.

The State Department subsequently agreed to instruct consuls abroad that they were to use their discretion to deny visa requests only if they thought applicants would “probably” become a public charge, but not if they thought applicants would “possibly” become a public charge. As a result, refugees began experiencing some easing of bureaucratic obstacles to immigration. After the German invasion of Austria in March 1938, Roosevelt also ordered the combining of the German and Austrian quotas, enabling the unused portion of the German quota (which was considerably larger than Austria’s) to be used for Austrian refugees. And following Kristallnacht he extended visitor visas for more than 12,000 Jewish refugees from Germany already in the US for another six months.

Historian William Rubenstein believes that the US response to the Jewish refugee crisis in the latter half of the 1930s was better than many critics of US immigration policy suggest. For example, the annual number of Jews allowed into the US increased from 6,252 in fiscal year 1935 to 43,450 in 1938, and Jews were the largest single group of immigrants allowed into the country in that period. Still, by June 1939 there was a backlog of more than 300,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia who had applied for visas but were not allowed into the country.

Critics of US immigration policy argue that we could have done more before the Nazis stopped all emigration and began implementing the Final Solution in the latter part of 1941. Indeed, Secretary of Labor Perkins favored legislation that would have allowed children to enter the country outside of the quota limits. But the Wagner‑Rogers Bill that was introduced in February 1939 by Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, which would have allowed 20,000 German children into the US over a two‑year period, died in Congress for lack of support. Similarly, a 1940 bill that would have relaxed quota limits and allowed refugees to go to Alaska floundered as well.

Detachment of wandering refugees arrives in Britain - 29-June-1939The plight of the passenger ship the St. Louis is often used to illustrate the critics’ point. In May 1939 the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba, with 933 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees. More than 700 of the passengers had applied for US visas and had secured affidavits of support. They expected to qualify for entry in a matter of months and hoped to wait their turn in Cuba rather than in Germany. Before their arrival, however, the Cuban government changed the policy that had previously allowed immigrants to seek temporary refuge in Cuba, and only 22 of the St. Louis passengers were given approval to land. The captain of the ship then headed for Florida but was denied permission to dock. A US Coast Guard cutter was dispatched to prevent anyone from trying to swim ashore, and a telegram from the ships’ passengers to the president went unanswered. The St. Louis cruised for a month on its way back to Hamburg before Great Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium finally agreed to accept the passengers. Seventy percent of them were killed in the ensuing Holocaust.

* * *

With the outbreak of World War II, opponents of Jewish immigration increasingly justified their policies by claiming that foreign subversives would infiltrate the refugee population coming into the US. Roosevelt signaled the State Department that he favored tighter regulations. The subsequent decline in the issuance of visas for Germans and Austrians (or former citizens of these nations) was dramatic.

In their research, Breitman and Kraut found little evidence that refugees were a source of internal subversion. In fact, they note that after the US entered the war in December 1941, “hundreds of thousands of these refugees served in the armed forces and in defense‑related industries.” Nevertheless, “State Department officials stiffened their resolve not to allow a misplaced humanitarianism to interfere with their duty” to defend the country. Military victory was the nation’s top priority, and “Americans might recoil at the sacrifices” they were being asked to make if they thought the nation had gone to war to protect Jews.

The full story of the US response to the Holocaust is beyond the scope of this article. To be sure, there were practical limits to what could have been done to save more Jews. Great Britain, too, was culpable in denying Jewish refugees safe havens. While we can arguably learn from this history, Breitman and Kraut remind us that government and public “indifference to suffering in faraway lands and unwillingness to take responsibility for persons” who need our aid are still very much with us today. Thus, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brezinski has asked, is Holocaust remembrance a “proclamation of a moral imperative” or a “pompous declaration of hypocrisy”?


Ronald J. Berger, The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory (Transaction, 2012).

Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945 (Indiana University Press, 1987).

William D. Rubenstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews (Routledge, 1997).

David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (Pantheon, 1984).

10 thoughts on “U.S. Immigration Policy and the Jewish Refugee Crisis of the 1930s

  1. Ron, your superlative & timely article motivated me to look into the St Louis episode, how the wider world handled it, & the ultimate tragic outcome to most of its passengers. From this piece & your previously posted articles, you give your reader a wide & detailed scope and perspective for taking in deplorable chapters of world & American history. Indeed, as you emphasize, if we are to learn from history it is incumbent upon us to not just remember but apply crucial lessons. We must continue to place hope in the proverbial arc of justice advancing, but it seems evident that our main thrust for realization of compassion & justice resides in civilized mutual acceptance, respect, genuine communication, and concrete efforts & actions which build a better world for all. Thank you for your contributions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. News note: The day after your posting, Ron, some non-action action took place in the House of Representatives. Democrats had noted that the White House, in its statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, omitted mention of Jews being victims.The Dems put forth a resolution which stated affirmation of the Holocaust & its targeting of Jews and asked for floor discussion. No way, said the GOP, & the vote was 234-187 blocking any discussion. Any further commentary necessary?


    1. One can only speculate about the motivations of Republicans outside of the Trump administration. It is likely they simply did not want to oppose the president. I suppose it’s also possible that they have constituents who are part of the right-coalition that includes anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. But without knowing more about what was said in Congress, I can’t say. In my article I focused more on the issue of immigration policy. At some time I may write something about the issue of Holocaust denial.


  3. The Capitol Times supplement of today devotes a full page editorial comment to this issue. They clarify that House Democrats put forth their resolution, seeking to go on record “reiterating the undesirable fact that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust” and calling on “every entity in the executive branch to affirm that fact.” Procedural moves by the Republicans blocked consideration of this resolution, voting along party lines, 234-187. For the full editorial, see captimes.com .


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