History will look back on this as a sad week in the United States — as the week that the president turned his back on people fleeing for their lives, in defiance of a proud promise indelibly inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that America will provide safe harbor to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
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President Trump signed an executive order on Friday to stop refugee admissions for at least several months, including shutting the door to all Syrian refugees; drastically reduce the annual cap on refugee admissions to 50,000 annually; and temporarily bar even visitation to the United States from some Muslim majority countries.
With more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, today the world faces the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Sadly, as we in the Jewish community know all too well, shutting the doors to people desperately fleeing for their lives harkens back to the World War II era.
In one of the most infamous cases of American callousness to the plight of Jewish refugees, in 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt turned away the transatlantic liner St. Louis. The ship, which was sailing so close to Florida that the passengers aboard could see the Miami lights, was carrying 937 German refugees — most of them Jews fleeing the Third Reich.
With public opinion against taking in refugees — fueled by claims that there were Nazi spies hiding among them or that they were a “menace to America,” — the president shut the doors. With the United States unwilling to let the ship dock and refusing to take in those aboard, the St. Louis turned back to Europe. Almost a quarter of the passengers aboard were slaughtered in the Holocaust.
Today, orphans and widows in Syria are trapped, caught between the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and the unparalleled brutality of ISIS. Young men and women around the globe are fleeing for their lives, persecuted because they love another person of the same sex or because they are transgender. Political dissidents who have had the courage to speak out in defiance of authoritarian regimes fear for their lives. And the executive order would send them a terrible message: The United States will not be a beacon of hope for you. You will not find safety here.
This is perhaps most devastating for the families who will not be reunited.
For people who managed to get through the long and difficult process to be granted refugee status, and who have been waiting in the United States until one day their loved ones can join them here, the executive order means that they may never have the moment of reunification for which they have hoped and dreamed. They may never hug or kiss their spouse, their parent, or their child again. Their families may never reach American shores. They may never reach safety at all.
The screening process refugees already in the United States have been through is, in fact, a very lengthy and in-depth one. People seeking refugee status must first undergo a screening process that includes interviews and background checks with American embassies, the Department of Homeland Security, and domestic and international intelligence agencies. The process takes years. Many do not clear the hurdles and are denied entry.
In fact, achieving refugee status is the single most difficult way to enter the U.S. And, despite all of the ugly rhetoric about Syrian refugees, no refugee from Syria has ever committed an act of terrorism here in America.
For those of us in the Jewish community whose hearts break for the refugees for whom the order may effectively be a death sentence, this week brings back dark echoes of the past.
Like so many others, my grandfather fled Nazi Germany. He made it to the United States with some of his siblings. But most of his family members — like most European Jews — were not so lucky. My wife fled religious persecution in Iran, finding a home in America where she could live and worship freely. The authoritarian regime in Tehran today still persecutes many of its minorities, including Sunni Muslims, Baha’i and members of the LGBT community, but these individuals likely would find no refuge in the U.S. when this EO goes into effect.
Mark Twain taught us that history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. So now it is up to us to write a different verse. The Jewish community must stand up against this heartless attack on refugees, not only because it is the moral and ethical thing to do, but because we know all too well what happens when people fleeing for their lives have nowhere to turn.
We must stand up to remind the Trump Administration and the world – once we were strangers, too. And we must do better.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.