With Congress debating a new immigration bill, can the Jewish immigration of the 1930s be compared to the immigration crisis today? It is a juxtaposition posed on the website of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in conjunction with its new exhibit, “Against The Odds: American Jews & The Rescue of European Refugees 1933-41.”
The differences are not only vast, but painful. One group was escaping a Holocaust; the other, simply seeking a better way of life in a stronger economy. One group attempted legal entry, seeking visas and affidavits even from strangers, within quotas; the other came illegally, without documents. One group had some 200,000 successfully enter, with others, such as on the St. Louis refugee ship, floating off the Florida coast before being sent back to Europe; the other group has 11 million already living in the United States. German and Austrian Jews were stripped of their citizenship; today’s immigrants are mostly coming from democracies where they are a majority culture and welcome to stay with full citizenship, though conditions in some of the countries would be considered harsh. In the 1930s, Congress froze quotas and the president was ambivalent; in 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill (with a path to citizenship), though it is stalled in the House.
Though not within the purview of the exhibit, Jewish refugees did often attempt illegal entry into British Mandate Palestine.
Almost everything has changed since the 1930s. The museum’s website observes that as late as 1938, only 5 percent of Americans said refugees from Hitler should be welcomed, if it meant expanding quotas. Nearly 20 percent said refugees were welcomed but only within existing quotas. And 67 percent said, considering the Depression’s high unemployment, “we should try to keep them out.”
By contrast, according to the museum, 73 percent of Americans today say there should “be a way for current illegal immigrants to stay in the United States,” through citizenship or permanent legal status.
Anita Kassof, deputy director of the museum, said by e-mail that it is “absolutely correct” to recognize “the very considerable differences” between then and now. The fact “that the Jewish refugees were in flight from persecution and arrived legally does distinguish them from undocumented aliens who have arrived in the United States recent years.”
The museum’s website, she added, “does not equate the two patterns of immigration, but merely suggests that today, as in the past, discussions about immigration can be complicated.” The questions posed by the contrast “are exactly the types of questions we hope visitors … will be inspired to ask.”
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