For some people familiar with the history of the runup to World War II, there’s a sense of déjà vu in today’s humanitarian crisis along the Mexican border these days, as resistance rises against the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children attempting to enter and stay in the United States.
Eyewitness reports in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers indicate that about half the children coming without parents are actual refugees fleeing murderous Central American drug gangs who would kill them without qualm or consequence if they refuse to become addicted or go to work for the gangs as drug runners, prostitutes or worse. Even if they’re only 6 or 8 years old.
But many Americans are skeptical of those reports, doubting that so many could be induced to become refugees so suddenly without a motive that is mostly economic.
Back in the early to mid-1930s, there were also doubts and skepticism when Alan Cranston (later a longtime U.S. senator from California) described in detail German persecution of Jews via the old International News Service wire. Similar reports in the New York Times were greeted with the sort of skepticism that’s rampant today.
When the German-Amerikan Line steamer St. Louis attempted to land 937 Jewish refugees from Europe in Cuba in 1939, Havana residents protested en masse on the docks of their city, forcing their right-wing government to turn away the ship, which was then denied even the privilege of docking in nearby Miami. Those aboard were returned to Europe, to face the Holocaust.
Conservatives in America led the resistance to taking in those Jews, claiming many were Communists. Similarly, some of today’s protesters claim without any evidence that the youthful wave of immigrants includes terrorist “sleepers.” There is no more proof of today’s canards than there was 75 years ago.
Seeming to echo the reception the Jews got in Havana, tea party members and other screaming protesters waved and wore American flags while carrying banners inscribed “Return to Sender” as they blocked buses carrying illegal immigrant children to a temporary shelter in the Riverside County city of Murietta.
The parallels between the St. Louis saga, now widely recognized as one of the most shameful episodes in Western Hemisphere history, and today’s humanitarian crisis, of course, are not precise.
For one thing, all passengers but one aboard the St. Louis were genuine, unquestionable refugees from persecution and near-certain death. It’s probable that only about half the 50,000 to 60,000 undocumented children attempting to enter the United States in the past year fit that category.
Most of the others want to join parents already here illegally or simply gain an economic foothold in America.
So it’s important to determine who fits into which category. Federal law provides that every person claiming refugee status — which the United Nations is now pressuring American authorities to grant many of the recently arrived kids — must get a judicial hearing to determine the validity of each claim. A 2008 law demands that those hearings be held quicker for children than others claiming asylum.
But no one anticipated a wave like today’s, so there are nowhere near enough immigration judges to hear all the cases.
That’s one thing President Obama wants to fix via a $3.7 billion emergency funding request to deal with the crisis. But partisanship in Congress makes it all but certain the funding will not come, leaving the children’s fate up in the air as there likely will be no new or even temporary cadre of immigration judges.
Some kids will find foster homes, some will no doubt be deported, but the fate of the vast majority is in doubt.
The ultimate solution, of course, will have to be improvements in the children’s home countries, but since America is not about to police hundreds of Central American towns, this country can’t cure the situation on its own, but must deal with symptoms.
There is no doubt, though, that it’s incumbent on us to avoid another shameful humanitarian disaster like the St. Louis episode, which is far from forgotten even after three-quarters of a century.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org