MS. St. Louis in Havana
Most Americans with knowledge of our nation’s history know of the MS St. Louis, the passenger ship that in 1939 carried over 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum in the New World. First the ship travelled to Cuba, where only 29 were permitted entry. Then they were refused entry in the United States. Then Canada. Captain Gustav Schröder, a German of principle, considered extreme measures to find safe-haven for his passengers, including running the ship aground so his passengers could escape. But eventually he returned to Europe. 288 passengers were granted asylum in Great Britain, 244 in France, 214 in Belgium, and 181 in the Netherlands. The Nazis eventually invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. 254 of the St. Louis passengers died in the Holocaust. The saga of the St. Louis has gone down in history as one of the black marks for the governments of Cuba, the U. S. and Canada. Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders were in a position to help, and they did not. In 2012, the American State Department publicly apologized for their refusal to accept the St. Louis refugees, and the Canadian government is poised to do the same.
Today, persons from Guatemala, Mexico, and other Central American nations are seeking refuge. Contrary to what Donald Trump has said, these are not “thugs” seeking to “infest” our nation. They are families who have suffered under conditions every bit as horrific as those Jews faced in the Germany of 1939. This is no exaggeration on my part. Although in most cases, the terror comes not from the respective governments but from drug cartels, the suffering they face is comparable – from harassment to murder. Families are being torn apart, both in their own countries and once they arrive here.
Franklin Roosevelt was hardly to blame for the conditions in Nazi Germany in 1939 (and his Germany First policy, instituted at considerable political sacrifice after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, undoubtedly saved the lives of many Jews). But U. S. drug policy, going back to the 1980s, has had a hand in creating the dismal conditions in Central America. We helped create the situation at our Southern border – and we bear some responsibility. And it is up to us to help relieve the suffering – both of the refugees and those who remain in their home countries. Whether these people are “legal” are not is as beside the point as whether the Jews on the St. Louis exceeded the “quota” for Jewish refugees from Europe. These people deserve asylum, not separation from their children – and the children, of course, are blameless.
When the history of our era is written, this will be remembered as one the most shameful abuses of human rights in our nation's history - along side the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow segregation, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Those in government who do not oppose the Trump administration’s policies will bear as much responsibility as will Trump. Those who are silent will be complicit.