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Roosevelt vs The Refugees: One FDR Policy That Bernie Sanders Never Mentions

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Under the Roosevelt administration, U.S. consular officials in Europe piled on extra requirements and created a small mountain of bureaucratic obstacles to ensure that most Jewish refugees seeking visas would remain far from America's shores. Photo Credit: Biography.com

In his recent major policy speech at Georgetown University, U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders repeatedly invoked the name of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He hailed “the bold and visionary leadership” of FDR, recalling how “Roosevelt led a transformation of the American government and the American economy.”

Sanders often cites Roosevelt as his role model and the New Deal as the template for Sanders’s vision of America. Yet at Georgetown, as on so many other occasions, there was one important area of Roosevelt’s policies that Sanders conspicuously failed to mention: immigration.

Sanders favors a much more liberal U.S. immigration policy. Not Roosevelt. In fact, FDR’s immigration policy was so strict that if Sanders’s father, Eli, had not arrived from Poland before Roosevelt became president, he probably would not have been admitted.

Sanders’s father came to the United States in 1921, the same year that President Warren Harding signed legislation to link immigration and national origins.

The new law stipulated that the number of immigrants from any one country during a given year could not exceed 3% of the number of people from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 national census. In other words, if there were 10,000 individuals of Irish origin living in the United States in 1910, the number of immigrants permitted from Ireland in any year would be a maximum of 300.

In 1924, under President Calvin Coolidge, the immigration regulations were tightened even further. The 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.

That shift to the earlier census was revealing. Anti-immigration sentiment was fueled in large part by bigotry. In fact, the original version of the immigration bill was submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, which characterized would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits…lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”

By going back to the earlier census, the immigration system would reduce the number of Jews and (mostly-Catholic) Italians, since the bulk of Jewish and Italian immigrants in the U.S. had not arrived until after 1890.

The admissions criteria were made stricter by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. In response to the onset of the Great Depression, the Hoover administration required would-be immigrants to prove that they were not “likely to become a public charge” once they arrived.

Fortunately for Bernie Sanders, his father got in just under the wire. Had he sought to apply just a few years later, he would have been competing for spot among a very small allotment of quota places. The quota for Poland was 6,524 annually.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became president in 1933, took that harsh system and made it even harsher. Under the Roosevelt administration, U.S. consular officials in Europe piled on extra requirements and created a small mountain of bureaucratic obstacles to ensure that most Jewish refugees seeking visas would remain far from America’s shores.

Thus, even as the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany intensified during the 1930s, and as violent antisemitism escalated in neighboring Poland, Roosevelt’s administration suppressed refugee immigration below the levels that the law allowed. The German quota was filled only once during 1933-1939, and the Polish quota was never filled during that period.

Meanwhile, life was growing more desperate for the members of Eli Sander’s family who were still back in Stopnice, Poland. Local anti-Jewish boycotts spread throughout Poland in the 1930s. Gangs of antisemitic thugs confronted Christian artisans, shopkeepers, and landlords and pressured them to refrain from doing business with Jews. Those who cooperated with the boycott were given signs to put in their windows declaring that they dealt only with “Aryans.” Those who refused had their names published in extreme nationalist newspapers.

The boycott enforcers also routinely carried out physical assaults on Jewish businesses, demanding that they close down. These attacks often escalated into all-out pogroms. A study of Jewish owned-stores in eleven towns in Poland’s Bialystok region, for example, found that from 1932 to 1937, the number of Jewish shops decreased by more than one-third. The Polish government endorsed anti-Jewish boycotts as necessary to bring about the “Polonization” of the nation’s economy, which they claimed was under Jewish domination.

No wonder that increasing numbers of Polish Jews were interested in emigrating. But the Roosevelt administration was not interested in admitting them, regardless of what the immigration system allowed. In 1933, less than 15% of the Polish quota places were used, and in 1934 only 17% were filled. The unused spots were not rolled over into the next year; they were simply thrown out. In most of the years between 1933 and 1939, the Polish quota was only 25% filled or less.

According to the law, a total of 45,668 Polish citizens could have entered the U.S. from 1933 to 1939; but the actual number allowed in by the Roosevelt administration was 17,616—just 38% of what the law permitted.

Tens of thousands of Polish Jews who could have been admitted under the existing law—including Bernie Sanders’s grandparents, Leib and Yetta, and their other children, Chana, Jacob, and Abraham—remained trapped in Europe and were later murdered in the Holocaust.

FDR didn’t hide his views on immigration. During his campaign as the 1920 vice presidential nominee, and in newspaper articles that he wrote in the 1920s, Roosevelt took an active part in the public debates about immigration. He called for restricting immigration for “a good many years to come,” and thereafter admitting only those who possessed what he called “blood of the right sort.”

Roosevelt’s views on Polish Jews were troubling, to say the least. In a private conversation in January 1938 with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise—the most prominent American Jewish leader of that era—Roosevelt claimed antisemitism in Poland was the fault of the Jews themselves. The president alleged that Poland’s economy was dominated by “the Jewish grain dealer and the Jewish shoe dealer and the Jewish shopkeeper” who, he said, were not treating the Polish public fairly.

Rabbi Wise pleaded with Roosevelt, “But, Chief, this is pure Fascist talk. They must find scapegoats to whom to point in order to satisfy the landless and unfed peasantry, and the Jew is the convenient and traditional and historical scapegoat.” Wise’s plea was to no avail; Roosevelt evidently “assented to every word” he had heard from anti-Jewish sources, Wise wrote in a memo afterwards. “It was like a blow in the face to have F.D.R. swallow and regurgitate this stuff,” the rabbi lamented.

It may be difficult for Bernie Sanders to acknowledge that a president whom he admires held such views. But there is nothing to be gained by hiding the truth about why Sanders’s father was able to come to the United States, and why so many other Polish Jews—including so many of Sanders’s other family members—were not.

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.)

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