Child refugees: U.S. on wrong side of history

By Joan Hennessy
Child refugees: U.S. on wrong side of history

The proposal before a Senate subcommittee would have allowed 20,000 refugees into the United States during a two-year period. Desperate, helpless and young – between  6 and 14 years old – they faced a future of certain persecution. Indeed, their parents were willing to bundle them off and send them to another country.

    This story is not about the waifs nestled in American Red Cross blankets on prison floors near the Mexican border. This is a story of history, and the children involved were part of another time, another generation, another refugee crisis. File this one under the category: Chapters of American History We Would Rather Not Discuss.  
     It was after news of Kristallnacht -- night of the broken glass -- Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis had gone on a rampage, killing and beating Jews, burning businesses and synagogues and breaking glass.
     Five months had come and gone since then, and on April 23, 1939, The Washington Post ran a story under the headline: “Dorothy Thompson Pleads for Child Exiles, Asks U.S. Haven for 20,000 ‘with no future.’ ”
     An outspoken journalist and the first American woman to head a foreign news bureau, Thompson testified before the Senate in favor of a bipartisan proposal championed by Sen. Robert F. Wagner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Mass.
     The plan would have allowed for annual admission of 10,000 children, outside of the German quota, during a two-year period. A Quaker nonprofit, American Friends Service Committee, would select the children.
     Thompson was a luminary with roughly the influence of Oprah Winfrey today, and her words carried weight. She spoke of German “non-Aryan” mothers willing to give up their children rather than have them remain where the future was hopeless, the story said. Thompson spoke of “the virtual disappearance of all the friends she had once known in Vienna, either by suicide, by imprisonment, exile or detention in concentration camps.”
     For good measure, she pivoted to a supporting argument that the Wagner-Rogers bill would bring needed citizens to the U.S.
     “I don’t ask you to take my word, ask the vital statisticians,” she argued. “It is well known that our birth rate is declining and we are becoming a nation of old people, as is shown by the concern over social security legislation.”
     Beyond Thompson, the bill had other prominent supporters, including Anson Phelps Stokes, canon of the Washington Cathedral, who told the Senate subcommittee of “countrywide support for the plan by churches.”
     So under the circumstances, shouldn’t the bill have sailed through the legislative process? Wasn’t this one of those times when lawmakers would simply find the right thing to do -- and do it? And shouldn’t citizens of the time have demanded that the country take in these children?
     We all know the right answers – now. But as it turns out, the answers weren’t so obvious to everyone then. Pushback came from “individuals and representatives of patriotic societies,” the Post reported. Opponents believed that “the bill was the first move under the slogan of ‘refugees’ to break down immigration law restrictions.”
     Lawmakers caved. The Wagner-Rogers bill was defeated in committee.     
     Widespread prejudice had thwarted efforts to save children. In her book, “No Ordinary Time,” (Touchstone; 1994), Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Roper polls confirmed that, though people disapproved of Hitler’s treatment of Jews in Germany, the majority of Americans were manifestly unwilling to assist the Jews in practical ways, especially if it meant allowing more Jewish immigration into the U.S. In answer to a question posed in 1938, ‘What kinds of people do you object to?,’ Jews were mentioned by 35 percent of the respondents; the next highest category, at 27 percent, were ‘noisy, cheap, boisterous and loud people’ … ”
    We often look back fondly upon World War II. Movie-makers gravitate to it because Americans love to imagine younger, buffer versions of their grandparents, foursquare, plain-spoken and taking on those Nazis. We think of our country as the unsullied force for good and that we collectively did everything we could do as the Nazis went from horrific to atrocious and from atrocious to abominable.
    The reality is that this is just one example of how we simply turned our collective backs on families in grave peril. A fair argument could be made that the war in Europe would begin later that year -- Sept. 1, 1939 -- and the logistics of getting anyone out at that point probably would have proved insurmountable. (But doesn't everyone wish we'd said yes, even so?)
    To be sure, nothing compares with the Holocaust. But even so, these Central American children are in peril -- and we can do something to help.
    As of mid-June,  U.S. Customs and Border Protection had apprehended more than 52,000 children at the border, according to the agency’s website. Approximately three-quarters are from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras and arrive after traveling for weeks through Mexico.
    “When asked why they left their home, 59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups,” writes Elizabeth Kennedy in the study, No Childhood Here, Why Central American Children are Fleeing Their Homes.”
    Families do not run to the U.S. as a first option, according to the report, published by the American Immigration Council. A Fulbright fellow working in El Salvador with returned children and youth migrants from Mexico and the United States, Kennedy describes the young people she encounters this way: “Many move within El Salvador, and there are whole neighborhoods that have been abandoned.”
    But moving from one part of the country to another doesn’t make them any safer. “An adolescent girl who witnessed her mom’s, brother’s and boyfriend’s murders by gang members has lived in six different parts of El Salvador—and even Guatemala— and each time, the same gang tracked her down.”
    In fairness, some groups have come to the aid of these children. The website for the American Friends Service Committee, lists immigrant detention and family separation among its key issues. In the best traditions of this country, charitable and religious groups are stepping forward to help.
    A law approved during the administration of George W. Bush requires that these children have a deportation hearing. But a spokesman for the Obama administration said recently that most won't qualify for humanitarian aid and will probably be deported.        
    The public reaction to the crisis is unsettling: In a national survey conducted July 8-14 by the Pew Research Center about half (53 percent) of 1,805 adults said the legal process for dealing with Central American children who cross the border illegally should be accelerated, “even if that means that some children who are eligible for asylum are deported,” the center reported. “Fewer (39 percent) support staying with the current policy, even though the process could take a long time and the children will stay in the U.S. in the interim.”
    To put it another way, 53 percent of Americans don't care that these kids must return to a perpetual state of crisis, homelessness, harassment, rape, victimization and death. Just as we turned our back on European children in 1939, now, 75 years later, we turn our backs on the children of Central America.  
    And once again we find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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