Immigration in a Time of Depression: The United States 1931-1940

Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

A Time of Decline

While every depression and even lesser economic downturns have negatively affected immigration to the United States, no previous—or subsequent—economic downturn affected immigration as did the Great Depression of the 1930s. And because the end of that Depression came after the outbreak of World War II, the fifteen-year period from 1930-1945 is a kind of Sargasso Sea in the surging history of American immigration. Total recorded immigration for the entire Depression decade was only 500,000 persons, the lowest decennial number since the 1820s. The average annual net immigration for the decade was 6,900; in 1914 more persons than that entered the country every two days. Nearly as many persons were recorded as leaving the country as entered it, so that officially calculated net immigration for the decade was only some 68,000 persons.

It is now clear that these numbers understate the exodus that occurred in the early years of the Depression. The vast majority of the 460,000 listed emigrants in the decade were Europeans returning to their native lands. But we now know that an informal federal-state-corporate program—not recorded in the official statistics—sent perhaps 400,000 Mexicans back across the southern border, most from California, Texas, and Arizona, but with perhaps 50,000 coming from Midwestern industrial areas. (For a vignette of this later group see page 88)

This chapter will, after establishing the trend of immigration policy before the Depression, concentrate on what law and policymakers regarded as the three chief problems to deal with in immigration policy: reducing immigration from Mexico, ending the unchecked immigration from the Philippines, and altering the system to accommodate refugees, predominantly Jewish, from Nazi Germany and, eventually, from the nations it overran.

Changes in Immigration Policy

To make sense of the immigration patterns of the Depression years, it is necessary to have an understanding of the radical transformation of immigration policy that took place in the 1920s. The two major immigration laws of those years, the so-called First Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, completed the initial restrictionist phase of American immigration policy that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first of fifteen statutes that excluded Chinese persons. A succession of subsequent laws had, by 1917, restricted immigrant entry to the United States in eight major ways. By that time, laws had been enacted to keep out most Asians, contract laborers, convicted criminals, persons who failed to meet certain moral standards, people with certain diseases or disabilities, paupers, certain radicals, and illiterates. Yet, in those thirty-five years (1882-1917), total annual immigration to the United States had risen exponentially, reaching a peak in the years just before the outbreak of World War I: During the first fourteen years of the twentieth century, an average of 1 million immigrants a year came, almost three times the number of persons who had arrived in the last fourteen years of the nineteenth century.

Those favoring a general restriction, often called nativists, had placed their hopes on a literacy test, which, after three decades of struggle, was passed in watered-down form in 1917. The act had little effect that provided added force to the arguments of those nativists who were urging the general restriction of immigration that came about during 1921-1924. The basic method of restriction, which was added to those methods already in effect, was to establish an annual numerical limit, and then to allocate to each of the eligible nations, an annual quota based on the numbers of foreign-born persons of that nationality present in the United States. Under the 1921 Act, designated an emergency measure, the overall quota was set at 3 percent of the foreign born in the 1910 census—the latest available—resulting in an annual quota of nearly 400,000. But when Congress was writing the 1924 Act—which stayed on the books until 1952—its leaders discovered that applying the same formula to the now-available 1920 census figures would increase the quota spaces available for eastern and southern Europeans, who were considered by many as undesirable, and, concomitantly, would reduce the numbers available for the more favored British, Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants. For example, if the 1921 law’s formula were applied using the 1920 census figures, a total quota of 270,000, with 42,000 spaces reserved for Italians and 31,000 for Poles, would result. Instead, Congress changed the formula and its base. The percentage was cut to 2 percent and applied to the 1890 census, producing an annual quota of 180,000 with slots for just 4,000 Italians and 6,000 Poles.

The quota numbers, often regarded as equivalent to total immigration, represented only just over half of it. Both the 1921 and 1924 laws had provisions for people who could enter as immigrants “without numerical limitation.” For the period 1925-1930, quota immigrants were only 51 percent of those admitted. Most of the rest were “residents of the Western Hemisphere” (40 percent) and “family members” (7 percent).

The New World provision, in the law because many southwestern and western legislators insisted that their regions needed Mexican agricultural labor, in its final version allowed immigration “without numerical limitation” of persons who had lived for five years in independent nations of the Western Hemisphere, plus Canada, Newfoundland and the Canal Zone. This did not mean that all could come: The previously enacted bars were still in place. For example, a Chinese person living in Canada, regardless of citizenship, would still be barred by the Chinese Exclusion acts, and a Mexican syndicalist would be barred by antiradical provisions.

Most Canadians and Mexicans could come and go relatively freely, however, and they were a growing proportion of contemporary immigration. Between 1910 and 1914 the 500,000 New World immigrants—almost all from Canada and Mexico—had represented about 10 percent of all immigrants: This grew to 40 percent, as noted above, for the period 1925-1930.

In addition to those from the New World, persons eligible to enter outside the quota included wives and unmarried children of United States citizens under 18 years of age (husbands of United States citizens were added only in 1928, and then only if the marriage had taken place before June 1, 1928); previously admitted immigrants returning from a visit abroad; any minister of any religious denomination or professor of a college, academy, seminary, or university and his wife (but not husband) and unmarried children under eighteen; bona fide students; and women who had previously lost their citizenship by marriage or from the loss of citizenship by their husbands. And finally, the long-established rights of Chinese “treaty merchants” and their families to domicile within the United States were reaffirmed.

For the first time, all immigrants had to get visas and provide photographs, which involved the consular service of the Department of State directly in the regulation of immigration. There was a $9 charge for visas, which, added to the $9 head tax, meant an outlay of $18 to enter. While this sum was hardly a major deterrent to immigrants who were paying for an Atlantic passage, it was significant to Mexican immigrants, who were long used to casually crossing and recrossing the border. The act also required reentry permits at $3 each, for aliens leaving the country and wishing to return, which also encouraged Mexicans to come and go informally.

The statutory requirement of a visa that had to be obtained at an American consulate was felt to be most important by restrictionists. It was, in their terminology, a way of controlling immigration at the source and it gave considerable discretionary authority to individual consular officials. No thorough study examines how the consular service actually regulated the issuance of visas, but it is quite clear that officials such as Wilbur J. Carr (1879-1942), who directed the consular service from 1909 to 1937, saw themselves as gatekeepers and that Carr and many if not most of his subordinates were nativists. Carr privately encouraged nativist members of Congress to raise bars to immigration with derogatory comments, such as the following: “[T]he great mass of aliens passing through Rotterdam … are Russian Poles or Polish Jews of the usual ghetto type … They are filthy unamerican [sic] and often dangerous in their habits” (Evans 1987).

Even before the onset of the Great Depression, the State Department instituted measures to reduce immigration from Mexico. In the last year of the Coolidge administration, it instructed American consular officials in Mexico to apply standards more stringently. Mexican visa applicants were faced with a “catch 22.” Consular officials would ask if the applicant had a job waiting for him. If the answer was “yes,” he could be barred as a contract laborer; if the answer was “no” and he could not demonstrate considerable assets, he could be barred under the “likely to become a public charge” clause, enacted first in 1882 to keep out paupers and persons unlikely to be able to earn a living. This cut immigration of Mexicans enabled by visas to 13,000 in 1928-1929 from 40,000 in the previous year. Herbert Hoover, in one of his earliest reactions to what became the Great Depression, ordered the State Department to apply the reinterpreted l.p.c. clause to all nonfamily immigrants who could not demonstrate substantial assets. This was, in the circumstances of the Great Depression, largely a useless precaution as European jobseekers soon learned about conditions in the United States and applications dropped accordingly. But later in the thirties, as Nazi Germany stepped up its persecutions of Jews, many, and perhaps most, American counsels continued to refuse the majority of visa applicants: Many of those Jews turned down were later slaughtered. Hoover wanted to have his administrative fiat written into the statute book, but Congress did nothing. In the closing years of his administration, as previously noted, trainloads of Mexican immigrants, including some American-born children, were sent across the southern border with the approval of the Mexican government, which made promises about looking after them and which it did not keep.

The New Deal and Immigration

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the advent of his New Deal in 1933 forever changed many aspects of American life, but there was never a New Deal for immigration. Roosevelt did celebrate past immigration, most famously in his speech to the reactionary Daughters of the American Revolution in April 1938, he said: “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists” (Rosenman 1938, 259).

But on most immigration questions, the father of the New Deal stood pat. His administration did stop the “voluntary repatriation” program to Mexico, but Hoover’s admission policies for Mexicans were continued. Most conservative southwesterners had long supported bringing in Mexicans to pick the crops. Early in the century Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918), the pioneer historian of California, welcomed Mexican labor under certain conditions: “[W]e want [them] for our low-grade work, and when it is finished we want [them] to go home and stay there until we want [them] again” (Bancroft 1918).

In the Depression era, many southwestern conservatives had similar views, as do many today. John Nance Garner, the Texas Congressman who became President Roosevelt’s first vice president, argued that Mexicans in Texas “do not cause any trouble, unless they stay there and become Americanized” (Immigration from the Western Hemisphere 1930, 61).

For the entire Depression decade a total of 22,319 immigrants from Mexico, not all of who were Mexicans, are recorded as entering the United States. In the previous decade, the number had been 458,287. Informal border crossing continued in numbers that cannot be counted, but surely the totals were reduced as the Depression created large number of native-born migrant workers, like those photographed by Dorothea Lange and written about by John Steinbeck, who were desperate for any kind of employment.

To be sure, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was sympathetic to immigrants and did clean up some of the corruption and mismanagement that seems to be endemic in the immigration service. Even before the Depression, the Democratic Party’s position on immigration was hardly distinguishable from that of the Republican’s position. Although Al Smith, the Democratic candidate in 1928, was rightly regarded as a representative of the immigrant and urban masses, the Democratic platform that year pledged itself to preserving immigration restriction “in full force and effect,” although it did favor more lenient provisions for family reunification. Not one of the four platforms on which Franklin Roosevelt ran, 1932-1944, contained a word about immigration, and there would be no significant changes in immigration law until 1943.

Candidate Roosevelt had made his position clear in his 1932 Commonwealth Club address in San Francisco, arguing that “[o]ur industrial plant is built … Our last frontier has long since been reached … There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty” (Rosenman 1938, 750).

This is not to say that had Hoover been reelected immigration policy would have been the same. Hoover wanted immigration restricted even further, while his successor wanted few changes. As Roosevelt put it in another 1932 campaign address, “[The President of the United States] says proudly that he has effectively restricted immigration in order to protect American labor. I favor that; but I might add that in the enforcement of the immigration laws too many abuses . have been revealed” (Rosenman 1938, 854).

The New Deal did, however, treat resident aliens more generously than its predecessor. Instead of repatriation or deportation, the New Deal provided some relief. Deportations, which had risen steadily from 2,762 in 1920 to 19,865 in 1933, dropped to fewer than 9,000 the next year and stayed at about that level for the rest of the decade. Federal relief regulations insisted on the eligibility of resident aliens, although local control of hiring usually discriminated not only against aliens but also against persons of color regardless of citizenship.

The first major immigration “problem” addressed by the Roosevelt administration concerned Filipinos. That the Asian Filipinos could enter the United States without significant restriction, was, of course, an anomaly, an unintended consequence of American imperialism that made their homeland an American possession. The federal courts had ruled that Filipinos were “American nationals” and thus not immigrants, and their entry could not be restricted because of their race. On the other hand, since they were neither white nor of African descent they were not eligible for naturalization. A few handfuls of Filipinos, brought to Mexico, had settled in Louisiana in the eighteenth century, and Jefferson’s purchase of that vast entity made them Americans. After the United States conquered and annexed the Philippines, hundreds of students came to study at American colleges and universities, largely in the Midwest. But the overwhelming majority of Filipino immigrants arrived after the restriction of Japanese labor immigration in 1907-1908. In both Hawaii and on the American west coast, Filipinos filled the same low-skill niches in the labor force that Chinese and Japanese had filled before them. In 1930 the census counted some 63,000 in Hawaii and another 45,000 in the continental United States.

The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association brought almost 120,000 Filipinos to Hawaii between 1909 and 1934, which previously had been responsible for bringing in Chinese and Japanese. More than 100,000 of them were men, nearly 9,000 were women, and 7,000 were children. Some came to the mainland after fulfilling their contracts in the islands; others went back to the Philippines. The California Filipino population was even more overwhelmingly male. In California in 1930 there were more than 28,000 males and fewer than 2,000 females.

A vigorous anti-Filipino movement arose in California in the late 1920s and early 1930s backed by a broad coalition of forces from organized labor to right-wing newspapers and politicians. While the basic cause was economic—during the Depression many whites were eager to get even the “stoop labor” jobs formerly left to assorted” foreigners”—there was also significant cultural conflict. Many middle-class Californians were aroused by what they regarded as the aggressive sexuality of Filipinos, large numbers of whom patronized “dime-a-dance” establishments. One Sunday feature story in the Los Angeles Times carried the following headlines:

“Taxi-Dance Girls Start Filipinos on Wrong Foot”

“Lonely Islanders’ Quest for Woman Companionship Brings Problems of Grave National Moment”

“Mercenary Women Influence Brown Men’s Egos”

“Minds Made Ripe for Work of Red Organizers” (Los Angeles Times 1930)

Similarly, David P. Barrows, president of the University of California, told a congressional committee that the state’s “problems” with Filipinos stemmed from the latter’s easily aroused sexual passions coupled with their natural propensity for vice and crime, all exacerbated by the deficiencies of modern American society:

[The Filipino] usually frequents the poorer quarters of our towns and spends the residues of his savings in brothels and dance halls, which in spite of our laws exist to minister to his lower nature. Everything in our rapid, pleasure-seeking life, and the more or less shameless exhibitionism which accompanies it, contributes to overwhelm these young men who come, in most cases, only a few years removed from the even, placid life of a primitive native barrio. (Melendy 1977, 66)

This portrayal of Filipinos as people only a step from savagery was a misconception nurtured in part by the frequent exhibition of Igorots, a name given to several peoples of Luzon who had been largely unaffected by modern civilization, at American world fairs and even zoos in the decades after the annexation of the Philippines. The fact that the Filipino migrants were not Igorots and that many of them spoke two western languages (Spanish and English) as well as one or more of the many Philippine languages was irrelevant to the nativists.

A middle-class proponent of Filipino exclusion, Sacramento businessman C. M. Goethe, ignoring the lack of Filipino women in America, warned that the 10 million Negroes in the United States were descended from “an original slave nucleus of 750,000” and insisted that “Filipinos do not hesitate to have nine children . [which means] 729 great grandchildren as against the white parents twenty-seven,” and then, switching his point of attack, he argued that the Filipino tends to interbreed with near-moron white girls, producing an invariably undesirable hybrid. This ever-increasing brood of Filipino coolie fathers and low-grade white mothers may in time constitute a serious social problem (Goethe 1934, 354).

As ridiculous as all this now sounds, it was heady stuff to a generation that made best sellers of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy. It was an era in which a leading liberal intellectual, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., could declare from the bench, while upholding a state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of women, that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” and equating the procedure with compulsory vaccination (Buck v. Bell 247, 207).

In addition, many Californians were startled to discover that the state’s antimiscegenation laws, which forbade marriage between whites and African Americans and between whites and “Mongolians,” could not be used to prevent marriages between whites and Filipinos. The legislature quickly passed a law making marriages between whites and “persons of the Malayan race” equally illegal.

There was also the traditional trade union argument. Even before the onset of the Depression the American Federation of Labor’s national convention resolved in 1928 that:

Whereas, the desire for cheap labor has acted like a cancer … destroying American ideals and preventing the development of a nation based on racial unity; and Whereas . this desire has exploited the Negro, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Hindus, as in turn each has been regulated and excluded; and

Whereas, the Malays of the Philippines were in 1924 omitted from the general policy excluding all who cannot become citizens; and Whereas, there are a sufficient number of Filipinos ready and willing to come to the United States to create a race problem equal to that already here . we urge exclusion of Filipinos. (American Federation of Labor 1928)

That same year, a California congressman introduced the first bill aimed at excluding Filipinos. Within two years, hearings were held and there was a congressional debate. The arguments against Filipino immigration were racial and economic. The chief opposition to restriction came from Hawaiian Sugar Planters, the War Department (which still administered the Philippines), and Filipino leaders. Most notable among the latter was Manual Roxas, speaker of the Philippine legislature, who was in the country as part of a delegation lobbying for independence. Filipino exclusion, according to Roxas, “has no precedent in the annals of colonization since the birth of time. No country, however imperialistic, however commercialistic in its policy in it dealings with its colonies, has ever prohibited the citizens of its colonies from migrating to the mother country” (Exclusion of Immigration from the Philippine Islands 1930).

Other Filipino spokesmen suggested that immigration and Philippine independence be tied together, an option that some American lawmakers quickly embraced. When in 1930 the restrictionists failed to get a simple Filipino exclusion clause added to an immigration bill, most of them jumped on the independence bandwagon. It was a nice irony: some of the most pronounced racists in Congress became, in effect, anti-imperialists. Hiram W. Johnson (1866-1945), the senior Republican senator from California and a long-time advocate of Asian exclusion, had a provision inserted into a 1932 bill granting independence that thereafter totally barred Filipinos as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” Hoover, however, who believed that the Filipinos were not ready for independence, vetoed that bill in January 1933 but stated that Filipino immigration should be restricted immediately. Congress overrode his veto, but the statute required the agreement of the Philippine Legislature, which was not forthcoming.

In 1934, with the support of the Roosevelt administration, a similar bill passed, was signed by the president, and was accepted by concurrent resolution of the Philippine Legislature. The Philippines were to become independent in 1945. The immigration aspects of the law were as follows: Instead of exclusion, Filipinos were to receive a quota of fifty spaces per year—half the size of the previous minimum quota. Although Filipinos remained ineligible for naturalization, the law specifically exempted Filipinos from the provisions of the 1924 law that excluded “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from immigration, and made it possible for the Territory of Hawaii to import more Filipino laborers if the secretary of the interior thought it advisable.

The basic Filipino “problem” had been solved, but many felt that the solution still left too many Filipinos in the country. In 1933, Samuel Dickstein (1885-1954), a Brooklyn Democrat who became chair of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization when his party took over in 1931, began to press for ways to get unemployed Filipinos sent back home. He supported legislation, enacted in 1935, to provide any Filipino who applied for it free “transportation and maintenance from his present residence to a port on the west coast of the United States and [subsequent] transportation and maintenance … to Manila.” In addition, the law forced any Filipino who received a free trip home to foreswear the right of return. In the event, only 2,190 persons applied for and received such a trip. Dickstein insisted that his motive was, in part, “humanitarian in behalf of these unfortunate Filipinos.” One can imagine what Dickstein, an opponent of the quota system for Europeans, would have said if someone had proposed the same sort of arrangement for unfortunate immigrants from Europe. That an urban Democrat like Dickstein sponsored such a measure shows nicely the attitude that even liberal Congressmen had toward Filipinos. In 1946, at President Truman’s urging, the bar against Filipino naturalization was lifted, thus enabling wives and children to come in as nonquota immigrants.

No New Deal for European Refugees

The “problem” of refugees from Nazi Europe, refugees who were mostly Jewish, first arose as the Roosevelt administration began. Viewed through the horror of the Holocaust, the callous indifference of the United States and the other nations of possible asylum has become a scandal with an extensive literature. But it is not really useful to view the policies of the 1930s, as too many do, through the prism of the Holocaust. Some of the literature can induce one to believe that Franklin Roosevelt and even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were somehow responsible for the Holocaust. Authors of phrases such as “while six million died” create the false notion that the United States, merely by changing its immigration policies, could have saved all or most of the Jews of Europe, a palpable impossibility. Nor is it accurate to assume that the Holocaust was inherent from the moment the Nazis came to power. By the time Americans learned about what Walter Laqueur has called the “terrible secret” of the Holocaust, the fate of most of the Jews of Europe was sealed. To be sure, even at that late date more could have been done. If one wishes to make a judgment, it is hard to improve on that of Vice President Walter F. Mondale, made in 1979: the United States and the other nations of asylum “failed the test of civilization” (Walter F. Mondale, text of speech, July 1979).

Any attempt to understand the pitiful refugee policy of the United States in the Nazi era must confront American traditions about asylum as well as contemporary political and social pressures. Many Americans share President Jimmy Carter’s belief that the United States was and always has been “a nation of refugees,” but such a conclusion is unwarranted (James Earl Carter, speech, New York Times, July 29, 1979).

During most of the nineteenth century, few Americans voiced fears about political refugees, but despite the wide-open American door it was Britain that became the mecca for most European political exiles. The most significant exile activity in the United States was by Latin Americans, particularly Cubans who made a revolution against their Spanish overlords from bases in Tampa and New York. And almost as soon as the United States began systematic regulation of immigration, language was adopted so that “political offenses” could not be used as grounds for exclusion. In American immigration law, no distinction was made between refugees and other immigrants, and the word refugee does not appear in any immigration statute before 1934, although in 1923 a Near East Refugee Act did pass the Senate. The literacy provisions of the 1917 immigration act included a clause waiving the literacy requirement—but nothing else—for “aliens who shall prove . that they are seeking admission to the United States to avoid religious persecution,” but it is not clear that even one person gained admission because of that provision.

From the earliest days of his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt was aware of the Nazi persecution of Jews, trade unionists, socialists and others in Germany, and, as a humane liberal Democrat, he deplored and spoke out against it. But for years he did little or nothing to change American immigration policy, neither to restricting it further nor to liberalizing it, as many of his closest supporters wished him to do. When, for example, Felix Frankfurter and Raymond Moley urged him to send representatives to a 1936 League of Nations conference on refugees and appoint Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to the delegation, Roosevelt instead took the advice of the State Department and sent only a minor functionary. In an election year, he was willing to accept the narrow view of executive power set forth by Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1871-1955). This conservative Tennessee Democrat, whose wife was Jewish, told the president that the law left him “no latitude” even to discuss “questions concerning the legal status of aliens” (Nixon 1969, 3:278-280, 282-283).

Similarly, when his handpicked successor as governor of New York, Herbert H. Lehman (1878-1963), wrote him on two occasions in 1935 and 1936 about the difficulties German Jews were having in getting visas from some American consulates in Germany, the president sent replies drafted in the State Department. The letters assured Lehman of Roosevelt’s “sympathetic interest” and claimed that consular officials abroad were carrying out their duties “in a considerate and humane manner.” In addition, the governor was assured that a visa would be issued “when the preponderance of evidence supports a conclusion that the person promising the applicant’s support will be likely to take steps to prevent the applicant from becoming a public charge” (Nixon 1969, 3:50-52, 64-66, 123-124, 341-343).

Roosevelt was notoriously distrustful of the State Department, and that he allowed its bureaucrats to draft his responses shows that he simply did not want to interfere or even to know what was really going on. Normally an activist president, he could be quite passive when it suited his purposes.

There is irrefutable evidence that many State Department officials consistently made it difficult for refugees in general and Jewish refugees in particular to gain asylum in the United States. One example involving just two individuals reflects a pervasive problem. Hebrew Union College (HUC) had a refugee scholars project that between 1935 and 1942 brought eleven refugee scholars and some of their families to its Cincinnati campus. Since there was no question of any of these persons becoming a public charge, most were able to enter under a provision of the 1924 act that exempted from quota restriction

an immigrant who continuously for at least two years immediately preceding [his visa application] has been, and who seeks to enter the United States solely for the purpose of, carrying on the vocation of minister of any religious denomination, or professor of a college, academy, seminary or university, and his wife, and his unmarried children under 18 years age. (43 Stat. 153, 1924)

This provision must have seemed heaven-sent to the scholars that HUC, the premier American institution for training Reform rabbis, was trying to bring out. But, as Michael A. Meyer, the historian of the project, has demonstrated, the State Department, in the person of Avra M. Warren, head of the Visa Division, consistently created difficulties—difficulties that in some cases proved insurmountable.

Despite apparent prima facie qualifications, two German Jewish scholars whom HUC tried to rescue never managed to get to the United States. Albert Spanier had been Hebraica librarian at the Prussian State Library and then a teacher at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin until he was sent to a concentration camp afterKristallnacht in November 1938, the notorious anti-Semitic pogrom all over Germany that marked a new stage of Nazi persecution of German Jews. The guaranteed offer of an appointment at HUC got him out of the concentration camp, but it could not get him an American visa. Avra Warren’s Visa Division determined that the special provision did not cover librarians, and Spanier’s teaching at the Hochschule did not count either. In 1934, the Nazis had demoted it—the leading institution for the study of Judaism in the world—from a Hochschule to the status of a Lehranstalt [institute]. An administrative regulation created by the Visa Division and not found in the statute held that the grant of a professorial or clerical visa to a scholar coming from a lower status institution abroad to a higher status one in the United States was impermissible.

Spanier and another refugee scholar invited by HUC, Albert Lewkowitz, managed to reach the Netherlands. It was assumed that Lewkowitz, at least, would get a visa because he had taught Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, an institution whose status the State Department did not question. But in May 1940, the Germans bombed Rotterdam destroying all of Lewkowitz’s documents and American consular officials insisted that he get a new set from Germany. Five years earlier, in peacetime, Roosevelt had assured Lehman in a letter drafted by the State Department that

consular officials have been instructed that in cases where it is found that an immigrant visa applicant cannot obtain a supporting document normally required by the Immigration Act of 1924 without the peculiar delay and embarrassment that might attend the request of a political and religious refugee, the requirement of such document may be waived on the basis of its being not “available.” (Nixon 1969, 3:65)

No such waiver was made for Lewkowitz. Both he and Spanier were later rounded up and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Lewkowitz was one of the few concentration camp inmates exchanged and he got to Palestine in 1944. Spanier died in Bergen-Belsen.

As we have seen, actions by three presidents, Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt, granted broad discretionary power to American consuls. Obviously, a wide range of attitudes and performance were represented within the consular corps. One American consul in Germany, Raymond Geist, actually went into concentration camps to help get individuals out; while another, John G. Erhardt, issued as few visas to refugees as possible. No historian has yet made a full-scale investigation of American visa policies, but as early as 1921, American Jewish leaders complained of the overt anti-Semitism of certain State Department officials, particularly, as noted previously, Wilbur J. Carr, and about the small number of Jews able to get appointments in the foreign and consular services. The published diary of Breckinridge Long (1881-1958), assistant secretary of state from January 1940 to January 1944, provides clear evidence of his anti-Semitism. One entry, for example, equated communism with Jewish internationalism and regarded Hitler’s Mein Kampf as “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos” (Schwartz, American National Biography).

While it is rarely possible to connect a bureaucrat’s personal anti-Semitism directly to his or her official decisions, it is not necessary to find the so-called smoking gun. When one finds a public official, in an era in which anti-Semitism is endemic, making anti-Semitic statements in his private correspondence and following policies that effect anti-Semitism, one should assume at least partial anti-Semitic motivation unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is the conjunction that is crucial. Hiram W. Johnson, a governor of California and United States senator from 1917 to his death, is an example of the opposite tendency. There are vile anti-Semitic and anti-black references in his private papers at the Bancroft Library, but Johnson was, if anything, mildly philo-Semitic and problack in his public statements and policies.

Late in the 1930s the Roosevelt administration began to move on the refugee question, but its actions can best be characterized by the phrase that describes so much of western democracy’s opposition to fascism, too little and too late. Shortly after the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, Roosevelt created an Advisory Committee on Political Refugees under the chairmanship of James G. McDonald, former high commissioner for refugees of the League of Nations, and assigned an interdepartmental committee of government officials to work with it. Roosevelt also instructed Secretary Hull to try to arrange an international conference to “facilitate the emigration from Austria and presumably from Germany of political refugees,” adding the caveat, “[N]o country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of immigrants than is permitted by its existing regulations.” He appointed Myron C. Taylor (1874-1959), former chairman of the U.S. Steel Corporation, to the rank of ambassador and named him to head the American delegation to the conference, which met in Evian, France, in July 1938. Its only accomplishment was to create an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, headquartered in London, under the chairmanship of George Rublee (1868-1957), an American lawyer. In mid-1939, Rublee did manage to negotiate a sub-rosa agreement looking toward the orderly emigration of 400,000 Jews over a five-year period, but the outbreak of war in 1939 made it nugatory.

In his note about those actions in his Public Papers, Roosevelt wrote things he never said to the American people in the crucial years of the refugee crisis, 1938-1939:

For centuries this country has always been the traditional haven of refuge for countless victims of religious and political persecution in other lands. These immigrants have made outstanding contributions to American music, art, literature, business, finance, philanthropy, and many other phases of our cultural, political, industrial and commercial life. It was quite fitting, therefore, that the United States should follow its traditional role and take the lead in calling the Evian meeting….

As this is written in June, 1941, it seems so tragically ironical to realize how many citizens of these various countries [which had been overly cautious in their attitude about receiving refugees] either are themselves now refugees, or pray for a chance to leave their native lands and seek some refuge from the cruel hand of the Nazi invader. Even the kings and queens and princes of some of them are now in the same position as these political and religious minorities were in 1938—knocking on the doors of other lands for admittance. (Rosenman 1938, 169-171)

When one compares this account with what the United States actually did and did not do in the months before war broke out in Europe, it is difficult not to believe that a guilty conscience lay behind his remarks, which later would be easy to describe as hypocritical. Of course, Congress and the American people were opposed to any dropping of our immigration barriers, as both Roosevelt and his ambassador, Myron Taylor, knew. The latter assured the American people in a November 1939 radio address:

Our plans do not involve the “flooding” of this or any other country with aliens of any race or creed. On the contrary, our entire program is based on the existing immigration laws of all the countries concerned, and I am confident that within that framework our problem can be solved. (Divine 1957, 98)

His confidence, if it really existed, was sadly misplaced.

The American record, as opposed to its rhetoric and post-facto rationalizations, was dismal. Although we do not know how many actual visa applications by would-be German refugees there were (many refugees made multiple applications and one scholar says that there were more than 300,000 by June 1939), the fact is that between Hitler’s coming to power and Kristallnacht, immigration from Germany was relatively light; more than half of the German quota spaces for the period, 1933-1940 went unused. Thus, a large portion of the Jews of Germany could have been accepted even within the relatively strict limits of the quota law.

The few attempts by sympathetic congresspersons to admit more refugees were forlorn hopes. The most notable of these was the so-called Wagner-Rogers bill of early 1939 that proposed bringing 20,000 German children to the United States outside of the quota system. Although sponsored by the New Deal’s most prolific legislator, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner (Democrat), and a liberal Republican, Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, the bill never came to the floor for a vote. It had a great deal of support from prominent Americans, including Herbert Hoover, but was opposed by a sizable majority of ordinary Americans according to the public opinion polls. We do not know what would have happened had the White House tried to lead public opinion and put pressure on reluctant Democrats. Roosevelt refused to do so. He was willing to allow some administration officials—Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Children’s Bureau Chief Katherine Lenroot—to testify in its favor. Other officials, such as Secretary of State Hull, took no stand but informed Congress of the numerous administrative difficulties the proposed law would create. Roosevelt even told his wife, in February 1939, that “it is all right for you to support the child refugee bill, but it is best for me to say nothing [now].” Now became never. In June, as the bill was dying, the president annotated a memo asking for his support, “File No Action, FDR.” In addition, some of his personal and official family viciously opposed the bill: One of his favorite cousins, Laura Delano, wife of Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization James Houghteling, told people at cocktail parties that the “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults” (Stewart 1982, 532).

In late 1938, Franklin Roosevelt did take one effective step by executive action: He “suggested” to Labor Secretary Perkins that the six-month visitor visas of “political” refugees be automatically extended and reextended for successive six-month periods as they ran out. This enabled about 15,000 persons to remain in the United States. Clearly, despite the president’s 1941 claim, the vaunted “haven of refuge” did not function well. But perhaps 150,000 refugees, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, did manage to reach the United States before Pearl Harbor, a significantly larger number than was admitted by any other nation: Many thousands of others could have been saved by a more resolute policy.