On May 13, 1939, the ship St. Louis left Germany. On board were slightly under a thousand Jewish German citizens who were escaping the concentration camps and gas chambers of the Nazi regime. Some were admitted into Cuba, but over nine hundred of them were refused, and so they sailed to American waters and asked for asylum in the United States. President Roosevelt refused to respond to all inquiries and pleas, while his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, insisted that the immigration laws be used to refuse to allow anyone on the ship to enter the country. Meanwhile Congress refused to pass a law allowing Jewish children to escape to the United States.
It was a low point for the United States. Not just low. It was rotten and shameful and degrading. Other countries, like Cuba and Canada, also refused these people asylum, but for the United States it was vastly worse, because it was in direct violation of the ideals upon which this country was founded. Contrary to, no, directly contradictory to the vile comment of Jeff Sessions that America is not an idea, the United States is nothing if it is not true to the founding ideal of the inalienable rights of all human beings. Refusing entry to the passengers of the St. Louis was a direct and deliberate violation of what it is to be an American.
We had done it before. We tore the children of native Americans from their parents. We ordered the genocide, virtual and sometimes actual, of whole native American tribes. We interred a whole segment of our fellow Americans simply because they were of Japanese parentage or ancestry. At the very moment of our founding, we allowed and even approved the enslavement of people based entirely on their race. After all of these atrocities, however, we finally worked, and are working, to make up for our wrongdoing and work toward a fairer country and a fairer world.
Or we were, until the present administration took a gigantic step backward. “They are not humans. They are animals,” said the leader of this nation. “We want to throw people out — no judges, no hearings. Just throw them out,” he said. So we, we the people of the United States, we tore children from the arms of their parents, put those children in cages, and threw their parents into jails with no plan to reunite them. We fixed the borders so that those fleeing violence and death in their own countries would have no way of applying for asylum, forcing them to enter illegally or return to the misery they sought to escape.
This moment, this abominable moment, is every bit as violative of who we are as the slavery and genocide of our past. We are an idea. If we are not that idea, that commitment to the rights of every human being simply because she or he is human, then we are no longer the United States. We become a tribe, a functional dictatorship ruled by power, a culture of bigotry. To echo those frightening words from the Vietnam war, by claiming to preserve the United States, we destroy it.