Americans have a long history of negative policies toward refugees, immigrants (COMMENTARY)

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A Syrian refugee holds a baby at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, on November 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RUDIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Nov. 18, 2015.

A Syrian refugee holds a baby at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, on November 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RUDIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Nov. 18, 2015.

(RNS) After Friday’s murderous attacks in Paris, more than half of America’s governors are voicing opposition to admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees to this country. In response, federal security officials have assured an uneasy public that all refugees will be fully vetted to prevent terrorists or criminals from entering the United States.

One governor, Chris Christie, R-N.J., declared: “I don’t think orphans under 5 … you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point.” However, two months ago, Christie had a different view when he saw images of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off the Turkish coast with his mother and brother as they sought safety from the bloody Syrian civil war.

Christie said: “I’d sit down with our allies and figure out how we can help, because America is a compassionate country. … I can’t come up with an exact number.” But that was then and this is now, and Christie’s “exact number “ today is zero.

READ: Welcome to my state, Syrian refugees

But the governors’ negative attitudes are nothing new. Americans have a long record of negative feelings and policies about refugees and immigrants, even though President John F. Kennedy correctly reminded us in his widely praised 1958 book that we are “A Nation of Immigrants.”

Catholics were legally barred from living in Virginia by a 1642 law that was soon imitated by Puritan Massachusetts. One of JFK’ s predecessors, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was suspicious of Catholics and their clergy: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. … In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Things got worse as the number of Catholic immigrants increased in the years before and after the Civil War. Many of the newcomers were refugees from Ireland, which had a long-standing conflict with Britain. In 1835, Lyman Beecher, a prominent Presbyterian preacher and president of Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary, publicly advocated the exclusion of Catholics from any western settlements as Americans moved in increasing numbers beyond the eastern seacoast. Beecher was the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who in 1852 published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a work that drew enormous national attention to the evil of human slavery in the United States.

READ: Why evangelicals are torn about admitting refugees to the US (ANALYSIS)

During much of the 19th century, Catholic immigrants and refugees were accused by nativist Americans, overwhelmingly Protestant, of undermining and threatening the American experiment in republican government. In 1842 a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Mass., was set on fire, and there were other acts of violence directed against Catholics, including an 1844 riot in Philadelphia that resulted in the deaths of 13 people and the destruction of two Catholic churches in William Penn’s “City of Brotherly Love.”

When Bishop Francis Kenrick of Baltimore, the most prominent Catholic theologian and biblical scholar of his time, objected to Catholic children’s using the King James Bible in public school, the American Protestant Association was formed and denounced the “principles of popery” because they were “subversive of civil and religious liberty.”

In my new book, “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” I recount that when Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, many European Jews sought refuge in the United States. A sense of desperation set in after Kristallnacht, the November 1938 anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Austria. While President Franklin Roosevelt decried Kristallnacht, he announced there would be no change in America’s harsh immigration laws. Strict numeric quotas would remain in place, effectively closing the nation’s doors to the large number of Jews seeking refuge.

READ: Where clergy need to tread: Helping make end-of-life medical choices

But some courageous American leaders pressed for increased immigration. In February 1939, Sen. Robert F. Wagner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Mass., co-sponsored a bill permitting 20,000 German Jewish children, a modest number, to enter the U.S. as nonquota immigrants. Eleanor Roosevelt unsuccessfully urged her husband to support the bipartisan Wagner-Rogers bill. Anti-Semites and isolationists attacked the legislation, as did the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the bill died in committee.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser. RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Rudin.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. RNS photo courtesy of Rabbi Rudin

FDR’s cousin Laura Delano Houghteling, whose husband was the U.S. commissioner for immigration and naturalization, opposed the Wagner-Rogers legislation, declaring: “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

It is perhaps both tragic and apt that a French adage accurately describes what is currently taking place in America regarding refugees and immigrants: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they remain the same.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. He can be reached at


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  • Bernardo

    And how does one fully vet a Muslim whose “holy” book dictates death to all infidels? And please no out of context verbiage. Terrorists follow the literal reading of the koran as do many other Muslims. We learn from history and 9/11 has taught us many things, the most important one is that Muslims cannot be trusted no matter what they may swear to in front of an immigration official.

  • John

    This site loves to criticize imperfect people and imperfect systems. You love to show the failures and it comes with a tone of joy about it. What do you expect? I guess if you can point the finger at others it makes you and your beliefs look better. How trite. Are you trying to set the record straight or make people of faith feel bad about the past? What gives RNS? Is there no good to be found except in your interpretation?

  • Fran

    Concerning immigrants, that was not the situation in the U.S. in the early 1950’s! My mom and dad, born and raised in France, became good friends with American soldiers during the Second World War there. After it ended, one of them contacted my dad by letter and recommended he come here to the “land of opportunity” and that there was “gold in California” (lol).

    His curiosity and interest in the U.S. became so great he decided to “test the waters” and come to the state of Nevada, where his soldier friend had moved to, because of growing construction and dad was a carpenter.

    The bottom line was that he got a great job, informed his girlfriend in France he wanted to move here, went home, married her, and moved to Nevada in 1953. Both my mom and dad left their country, family and friends, and raised 5 daughters here. We are still here!

    All I can say, as a French American, is that it was a different world then, not so crazy and overcome by terrorism as it is now!

  • Richard Rush

    Bernardo, I’ve been reading your comments on various RNS posts regarding the so-called ‘refugees,’ and I just want to say that I agree with you.

  • Larry

    Well Fran, some of my relatives were turned away from US shores during the late 30’s and WWII because they were of an unpopular religious group. Most of them died at the hands of the Nazis.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Michael

    I have seen a dearth of columnists tackling this subject mention, the U. S. already currently vets Syrian refugees coming into this country and there is currently a two year wait while they are being vetted. In the wake of the atrocities in Paris, people’s imaginations are running wild, that that standard will somehow be brushed to the side, and 10,000 UN-vetted immigrants will simply be allowed entrance with NO vetting whatsoever. This is an irrational fear. If anything the scrutiny within the vetting process, in the wake of the Paris tragedy, will be more strenuous, not less.

  • Fran


    I am so sorry to hear about the situation concerning your relatives during those times!! ??

    Many of my brothers and sisters in faith living in Europe were put in concentration camps and killed by the Nazis as well for remaining neutral. All they had to do was sign a declaration renouncing their faith and they could be released. Most of them refused and suffered the consequences. So I can completely understand the “hate factor” in all of this.

  • Richard Rush

    “Americans have a long history of negative policies toward refugees, immigrants”

    While that fact should cause us to closely examine our response to the current situation, it’s not a legitimate reason to assert there can never be a group of people which can be justifiably rejected.

    My impression is that moderate Muslims are roughly equivalent to theocratic fundamentalist Christians in the US, and that militant/terrorist Muslims simply take it to the next level ~ a level which I believe some US Christians (Kevin Swanson and Ted Shoebat, for examples) aspire to, but are not able to implement under our secular government.

    There are countries in Europe which are considered to be very accepting of gay people (Netherlands, for example), but the reality is that in some areas it is very dangerous to walk the streets if you are gay ~ because of Muslims.

    If there is only one group on earth which can be justifiably rejected, it is sincere adherents to the scourge of Islam.

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  • larry

    Yet the French are taking in 30,000 more refugees in response. They are not only avoiding destructive panic, they are recognizing that these refugees form an important part of fighting Islamicism on the ideological front. The more the West acts like it is “the enemy of all Islam”, the easier time I-S has when it comes to recruiting and finding support outside of Iraq and Syria.

  • Scott Shaver

    By way of comparison, which nation of the world (former or current) has a better track record on immigration than the U.S.?

    The assumption otherwise is false on its face.