As our government scrambles to find some way to handle the thousands of desperate migrant children and families from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador slipping across our southern border, we should remember the past. Seventy-five years ago, in June of 1939 another wave of desperate migrants was pleading for entry to our country. There were no visas available because of strict quotas on immigrants, and legislation that would have allowed more of these migrants into the country had died in Congress. President Roosevelt and his Department of State declined to extend any extraordinary relief, instead sending a letter to the migrants that they must "await their turns on the waiting list." We turned away boatloads of migrants, Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany, and sent them back because they did not fit our immigration priorities. Of the 938 passengers on one ship, the St. Louis, more than 250 died in the Holocaust.
As an American, I am not proud of that moment in our history. I doubt that many of us are.
Did we know at that time what fate awaited those families? No. But we knew that bad things were happening in their home country, we knew that they were fearful and desperate enough to give up theirs homes and make a perilous journey to an uncertain refuge, hoping for our mercy. And we know this is true of the current migrants.
The stories differ in the details. Now the migrants flee chaos and cartels, not fascism and Brownshirts. The Central American states that today's migrants flee are in crisis--violent gangs and drug cartels terrorize many areas, indigenous populations are oppressed, police and military often prey upon those they should protect. Honduras and El Salvador have two of the highest homicide rates in the world. All of the children who we decide to send back will suffer, and some will die.
Do we as a nation have the will not to repeat the same inaction?