Immigration 101 tracks my course at Hofstra Law School. This is Part 2 of a series on refugee law.
The creation of modern refugee law emerged from the failure of the Western democracies to protect refugees forced to flee their homelands by the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, the destruction of the Jews in the first half of the 1940s, and the expansion of Soviet Communism during that decade’s second half.
The extreme forms of persecution pioneered by Russia, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union during this twenty-year period would unleash the largest refugee flow in European history. The failure of the democracies to receive these unfortunate people helped facilitate the murder of millions.
The collapse of the Spanish Republic set of a massive wave of refugee movement in 1938 and early 1939, most fleeing Fascist armies to the supposed safety of republican France. They were often met by French border forces who turned them back to the mercies of those who wanted to kill them.
This BBC report gives a sense of just how poorly even those who managed to enter France were treated:
“Worse was to come. As many as 100,000 of the Spanish refugees were herded down onto the beach at Argeles.
In the summer now, thousands of tourists come from all over Europe to enjoy the sun, the sand and the Mediterranean way life.
But in February 1939, the Spaniards were left in the open air in freezing cold, with no shelter at all.
There were bloated dead bodies everywhere – mounds of destroyed vehicles and guns
Jose, another lucid man in his eighties, tells me they were treated like animals:
“On one side there was the freezing sea, on the other barbed wire six feet high. For days we weren’t given any food or any kind of shelter. I had to dig a hole with my hands in the sand and drink sea water to survive.”
Before the situation improved by the summer of 1939, up to 10,000 of the refugees had died. “
The most famous example of the United States’ failure to accept Jewish refugees was the turning back of the S.S. St. Louis, loaded with hundreds of German Jews. Franklin Roosevelt, under pressure from his own Secretary of State and Southern Democrats refused to allow the ship’s passengers to enter the United States as refugees. But this was only one instance. In myriad other ways, American anti-Semitism insured that only a small portion of Jews seeking safety here would be allowed to enter.
The severe restrictions on Eastern European immigration to the U.S. imposed in 1924 had been largely the result of a desire by many Americans to keep Jews out. The early stirrings of the Final Solution did little to change American policy. Jews from Germany could hope to get in line for the 27,000 visas issued by the U.S. to Germans each year, but virtually no visas were available for Jews from places like Poland. And even for German Jews, the visas were vastly oversubscribed. For example, in 1939, the last year that escape from the Nazis was a realistic possibility, there were over 300,000 German Jewish applicants for the 27,000 visas.
And the United States was not the only Western country that refused Jews refuge. At the 1938 Evian Conference only the Dominican Republic and, later, Bolivia agreed to accept significant numbers of Jews.
Policies did begin to change after the United States entered the war, but systematic aid to Jewish refugees did not begin until 1944, just a year before the end of the war.
And to compound the refugee crisis, as the German army fell back on the Eastern Front, the Red Army began to attack not just its Fascist foes, but also local democratic and nationalist communities in the countries it supposedly “liberated” from Hitler. People who had lived in fear for five years under the Germans now fled west in fear from the Russians.
In the next installment of Immigration 101 I’ll look at how the failure to protect those fleeing murderous regimes forced the international community to finally came to terms with the refugee crisis.
Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.