As anti-Semitism and hostility toward immigrants surge, a little-known story of a Boston congresswoman and New York senator deserves to be remembered.
Nov. 9 marks 80 years since Kristallnacht — Nazis’ orchestrated rampage against Jewish businesses and institutions in Germany and Austria. Thousands of schools, homes and hospitals were ransacked. Hundreds of synagogues were burned. At least several dozen Jews were murdered. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
An unlikely political duo tried to mount a legislative rescue.
Sen. Robert Wagner was a Tammany Hall Democrat from New York. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, from Boston, was descended from a patrician New England family. On Feb. 9, 1939, they introduced legislation to admit 20,000 German children to the United States over two years — over and above the existing annual quota of 27,300 for all German and Austrian immigrants.
The horror of Kristallnacht triggered early widespread support for the Wagner-Rogers bill. The AFL-CIO endorsed it. Henry Fonda and Helen Hayes praised it. Herbert Hoover — who refused to relax immigration quotas when he was President — approved of it. Even Former First Lady Grace Coolidge announced that “she and friends in Northampton, Massachusetts would personally care for 25 of the children.”
Then the opposition mounted. Some of it was based on the notion that 20,000 children would compete with Americans for jobs during the Depression. Some was rooted in unabashed bigotry. Some was based on the type of nativism that has always opposed immigration.
Laura Delano Houghteling, the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, said, “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
In joint House-Senate committee hearings, the American Legion testified that Wagner-Rogers and similar proposals were “inimical to the welfare of the United States.”
One witness named Agnes Waters described herself as “the daughter of generations of patriots.” She told the subcommittees: “These refugees are brought up in an atmosphere of hatred. They can never be real Americans.”
The Regular Veterans Associations wrote: “America does not need the foreigners. We have no room for them and their progeny. We have our own disabled, our own homeless, our own sick and hungry, our own uneducated, our own slums and sharecroppers, our own problems, chief of all of which is to keep America for Americans.”
This was echoed by The Sons of America, whose representative proclaimed: “I am for America, first, last, and forever. America first.” Sound like a tweet by anyone in particular?
The most damning statement came not from any organization or association. Rep. Carolyn O’Day’s inquiry to the White House about President Roosevelt’s position on the bill was returned to Roosevelt’s secretary marked “File No action FDR.”
Some historians believe that Roosevelt took “no action” because he was mindful of unfavorable polling on what we now call “unaccompanied minors.” Others argue that he didn’t want to offend Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds of North Carolina. Reynolds was part owner of an anti-Semitic newspaper called The Defender; FDR needed his support for rearmament as an important member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.
Wagner-Rogers was approved in the joint congressional committee, but that’s as far as it got. Given an opportunity to rescue Jewish children with a humanitarian immigration policy, America found the excuses it needed to keep them in harm’s way.
The circumstances generating President Trump’s immigration policies may not be identical, but the ugly human impulses behind them are the same.