In 1936, my grandmother, ten years old at the time, walked to the tram stop to head back from school, like she did every day. The tram driver refused to let her on, telling her that Jews weren’t allowed. She instead walked back, arriving home more than two hours late.
When her father, my great-grandfather, heard about the latest setback, he decided that enough was enough and was determined to get his family out of Germany. His friends told him that he was overreacting, and that the anti-Semitism would soon blow over. He refused to be swayed, stuffed his gold into the legs of the chairs he was able to pack—Jews were not allowed to take valuables if they left the country—and applied for an English visa. Thankfully, his application was accepted, and they fled to London, where they spent the rest of the war in relative safety. Had my grandmother and her family not evacuated when they did, they likely would have perished in the Holocaust, like most of the other Jews from Breslau did.
My grandfather had a very different experience. He was already a young man by the time World War II started, and his family did not evacuate in time. He and his entire family were taken to Buchenwald, where his grandmother, mother, and both sisters were murdered. He was the only member of his family to survive. He escaped Buchenwald and fled to America, where he enlisted in the Army almost immediately and fought in the waning years of the war.
The United States was apathetic towards the plight of Jews during World War II, including the infamous rejection of the MS St. Louis, a boat carrying nearly a thousand Jewish refugees. About a quarter of those thousand refugees perished in camps. The US did not choose to get involved in the Second World War even when they found out about the concentration camps; they only got involved once they were directly attacked by Japan. The US did not feel that the extermination of Jews, people with disabilities, the Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, and many other groups the Nazis deemed inferior was worth the war that intervention would inevitably provoke.
Unfortunately, America’s lack of empathy towards those fleeing the horrors of war, famine, and disaster has not improved very much. The Trump administration is expected to cap the number of refugees admitted for the next fiscal year to somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000, the lowest since 1986 when the Reagan administration created a cap of 67,000. To put in context, five million Syrians have become refugees since 2013, and six million other Syrians are internally displaced. The ethnic cleansing conducted by the military of Myanmar has caused 168,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar in the last five years, and there is little indication that that flow of refugees will stop for the foreseeable future. Not to mention the refugees that climate change has already created and will continue to create, including estimated up to two billion people because of rising sea levels by 2100, or one-fifth of the world’s population. Refugees continue to flee violence and persecution, and that is unlikely to suddenly stop, especially given Trump’s shockingly idiotic and uninformed foreign policy.
Political leaders, more often (but not exclusively) Republicans, often tout the safety of Americans as a reason for not accepting refugees, since there could be terrorists posing as refugees among the refugees admitted. This argument isn’t entirely unreasonable; if the U.S. admits millions of refugees, it is possible that one of them will have violent tendencies. However, Americans have about a 0.00003% chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist, while they are about 382 times more likely to die in a car accident. The potential harm caused by a few refugees is incomparable to the tens of thousands of lives saved.
Moreover, to say that protecting Americans necessitates rejecting refugees implies that the lives of Americans are more important than the lives of others. The lottery of where a person is born should not determine their value, and to deny the most vulnerable people in our world entry to safety denies their human worth. The life of an American is not worth more than that of a Syrian, and we would do well as a country to remember that.
Although the morality of accepting refugees would outweigh any economic loss they might cause, the U.S. doesn’t have to choose between the two. According to senior UN advisor Jeffrey Sachs, although the effects are complicated and distributed unevenly, refugees have a net positive impact on the US economy. Not only would we be providing a safe haven to these people fleeing life-threatening situations, but we would also help those who are already here.
If England hadn’t accepted my grandmother’s family or if the US hadn’t accepted my grandfather, they almost certainly would have been murdered in Germany. Instead, here I am, seventy-five years later. The opportunity to provide safety to countless families in the next few decades is not only our obligation as fellow human beings. It should be our aspiration to fulfill those famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How can we live up to this promise as a nation if we continue to reject people fleeing certain death?
Featured image courtesy of Cincinnati Public Radio