Turned Away: The MS St. Louis and Its Echoes Today

In early June 1939, more than 900 passengers—almost all Jewish—sailed near the Florida coast aboard the MS St. Louis. Fleeing persecution by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany and having just been denied entry by Cuba, they desperately pleaded for safe harbor. The United States turned them away, and the ship was forced to return to Europe. Eventually, 254 of the passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

As a Jew and an Army veteran, I am haunted by this dreadful moment in American history. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s asylum and immigration policies, which have included efforts to completely shut down refugee admissions, echo this tragedy from our country’s past. The United States can and must reverse course.

When I served in the Army—including when I was deployed to Afghanistan, where on numerous occasions I attended synagogue in a makeshift chapel, a tent shared by different religions, on a forward operating base in Kandahar Province—I always wore the U.S. flag on my shoulder with great pride. And that same sense of patriotism inspires me still today.

But this pride is driven by America’s better moments. Images of U.S. soldiers liberating concentration camps toward the end of World War II come to mind. So, too, do the images of the Appomattox Court House meeting where General Ulysses S. Grant met with General Robert E. Lee and finalized the defeat of the Confederate Army, which had fought to protect slavery. I am also proud of the country’s rich tradition of welcoming immigrants who are essential to America’s fabric and its role, until recently, as the world’s leader in resettling refugees from around the world who come to the U.S. seeking safety.

Yet, as the MS St. Louis incident demonstrates, America’s refugee track record is by no means pristine. And now, at the behest of President Donald Trump, the government is again betraying the country’s ideals, this time by, among other things, crippling our asylum and immigration system with a set of policies that essentially close America’s doors and dehumanize those who come here seeking refuge and a better life.

For instance, the Trump administration—at a time when global human displacement and refugee numbers are at record highs—has slashed America’s refugee cap to its lowest point since the establishment of the country’s modern resettlement program. The administration also instituted the notorious family separation program, ripping thousands of frightened children away from their parents, without having the capacity or a plan for reuniting them. Further, in a dramatic political stunt, the administration deployed thousands of active-duty service members to the southern border, peddling the bogus threat of an invasion that, in reality, was a group of peaceful migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their homes countries. It has also implemented the “Remain in Mexico” program—a policy that, according to a Human Rights First project, has led to upwards of 1,100 “publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers and migrants forced to return to Mexico.” What’s more, the Trump administration is currently exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to advance its anti-migrant goals—it has, for example, suspended asylum processing and even sent additional service members to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration’s callous policies—which are inconsistent with American values and at times unlawful—must stop. Among other changes, the United States should increase the number of refugees it accepts. The inhumane “Remain in Mexico” program should end at once. U.S. armed forces should not be used to serve a political narrative that fans the flames of xenophobia and bigotry. And, legitimate public health concerns amid the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to block people exercising their legal right to seek asylum or otherwise be co-opted to further the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda. Instead, policymakers should understand that the country can simultaneously protect public health and national security while safeguarding refugees and asylum seekers.

The Trump administration’s actions bring to mind some of the more shameful moments in U.S. history, including the turning away of the MS St. Louis. The White House’s attitude toward refugees, asylum seekers, and all those who come to America seeking a better life does not represent the version of America that I defended in uniform. But a deep source of my patriotism is derived from the understanding that the United States can be clear-eyed about its wrongdoing and improve. On issues of asylum and immigration, it is time to undo what Trump has put in place, and once again open up America’s doors.

Image: Asylum seekers wait for news outside El Chaparral port of entry on the US-Mexico border in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on March 19, 2020. President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday stronger measures at the border due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, including a turnback to all asylum seekers. Photo by Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Haas

Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First, Former Army Intelligence Officer, Graduate of West Point and Stanford Law School. Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).