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Rafael Medoff: 100th Anniversary: The U.S. Immigration Law That Doomed Europe's Jews

by Rafael Medoff, posted here May 29,2024



(Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is Whistleblowers: Four Who Fought to Expose the Holocaust to America, a nonfiction graphic novel with artist Dean Motter, published by Dark Horse / Yoe Books. The article below was first published in the Jewish journal of Los Angeles May 8,2024)




    This week marks the 100th anniversary of the infamous U.S. immigration law that ultimately made it extremely difficult for Jewish refugees to find haven in America. The way that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration implemented that law helped ensure the abandonment of millions of Jews seeking to flee Nazi Europe.


    This troubling chapter in America’s history began in the late 1800s, when the public began turning sharply against immigration. Fear of radical ideologies, concern about competition for jobs, and a growing belief that Anglo-Saxons were racially superior all fueled resentment of foreigners. Congress responded by repeatedly passing immigration restrictions, but most of those bills were vetoed by several presidents.


    The Communist takeover of Russia in 1917 intensified anti-immigration sentiment in the United States and spurred the introduction in Congress of the Emergency Quota Act. It stipulated that the annual number of immigrants admitted from any country could not exceed 3% of the number of immigrants from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 national census.


    The bill was presented to Congress with a report by the chief of the U.S. Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, characterizing would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as "filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits...lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.” President Warren Harding signed the bill into law in 1921.


    But that law was only a temporary measure. So in May 1924—100 years ago this week—Congress adopted, and President Harding signed, a permanent and more restrictive measure, known as the Johnson-Reed Act. The specified percentage was reduced from 3% to 2%; and instead of the 1910 census, the quota numbers would be based on an earlier census, the one taken in 1890—a move intended to reduce the admission of European Jews and Italians, since most of them had not arrived in the U.S. until after 1890.


    In response to the onset of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover reduced immigration further, with a 1930 executive order barring the admission of anyone “likely to become a public charge” (dependent on government aid).


    The annual quota for Germany was 25,957, but that limit was almost never reached, thanks to extra requirements and regulations that the Roosevelt administration piled on. Barely five percent of the German quota was filled in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power. In fact, it was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, and in most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. 


    Wilbur Carr, who authored that antisemitic report in 1921, was kept on by Roosevelt as assistant secretary of state. He played an important role in implementing the president’s harsh immigration policies. So did George Messersmith, a senior US diplomat in Germany and Austria whom Roosevelt made assistant secretary of state in 1937. 


    The best known of these State Department officials was Breckinridge Long, a major donor to FDR’s presidential campaign who was rewarded by being named U.S. ambassador to Italy. But Long’s praise for Mussolini’s “punctual trains” proved embarrassing to the administration, eventually leading to his resignation. Roosevelt then rewarded Long by promoting him to assistant secretary of state, putting him in charge of 23 of the State Department’s 42 divisions, including the visa section. 


    In one infamous memo to his colleagues in 1940, Long wrote of the need “to put every obstacle in the way [of refugees seeking to enter the U.S.] and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”


    Long regularly briefed President Roosevelt on his efforts to suppress immigration below the level allowed by existing law. In a diary entry in October 1940, Long described his meeting with FDR to discuss "the whole subject of immigration, visas, safety of the United States, procedures to be followed.” He found that the president “was 100% in accord with my ideas."


    One of those ideas was a June 1941 regulation—personally approved by FDR—that rejected all visa applicants who had “close relatives” in German-occupied territory. The new edict affected significant numbers of European Jews. During the period of the Nazi genocide, from 1941 to 1945, only 10% of the quotas from Germany and Axis-controlled European countries were actually utilized. Almost 190,000 quota places were left unused. 


    Thus the Johnson-Reed Act, signed into law a century ago this week, established the framework that would help doom many of Europe’s Jews. But it was the Roosevelt administration’s harsh implementation process that actually shut America's doors in the face of those who most desperately needed a haven.


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