A woman and her young daughter, no older than 6 or 7, are shopping for groceries in a corner store of a bombed-out city. It’s sometime around 1947. The war is over, the Germans are gone, the Gestapo is no longer hunting Jews. Some of their local henchmen have been imprisoned or shot. Many just took off their uniforms and returned to their former lives.
The mother speaks with the trace of a foreign accent. As she reaches for her wallet to pay, the grocer says: “Why don’t you people go back to where you came from?”
Where, precisely, would that even be? The woman had fled Moscow for Berlin as a girl, after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 and arrested her father, who was never to be heard from again. Later, when still in her twenties, she had fled Berlin for Milan, sometime between Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 and Mussolini’s enactment of the racial laws in 1938.
She and her daughter were citizens of no country, living under a made-up name. They had nowhere to return, no place to go, no way to stay, and nothing they could do about any of it. To go back to the Soviet Union would have been suicidal. Israel did not yet exist. Germany was out of the question. America’s doors were mostly shut.
This was the life of a refugee in postwar, pre-reconstructed Europe. It changed dramatically the following year, when Harry Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, marking the first time that U.S. immigration policy became actively sympathetic to the utterly dispossessed.
Thanks to the law, mother and daughter arrived in New York on Nov. 13, 1950, with only $7 between them, but without the weight of fear on their backs
What Truman did became precedent for decisions by subsequent administrations to admit other refugees: Some 40,000 Hungarians fleeing Soviet tanks after 1956 (including a young Andy Grove, later the C.E.O. of Intel); hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing Castro’s repression after 1959 (including a young Gloria Estefan); as many as 750,000 Soviet Jews fleeing persecution by a succession of Kremlin despots (including a young Sergey Brin).
There were so many others. More than a million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians after the fall of Saigon. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians after Khomeini’s revolution. Over 100,000 Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Similar numbers of Burmese. Altogether, some three million refugees have been welcomed by the U.S. since the Refugee Act of 1980, more than by any other country.
By almost any metric, America’s refugees tend to succeed, or at least their children do. Whatever they do to enrich themselves, they enrich the country a great deal more. Empirical data on immigrant success overwhelmingly confirm what common sense makes plain. People who have known tyranny tend to make the most of liberty. People who have experienced desperation usually make the most of opportunity. It’s mainly those born to freedom who have the knack for squandering it.
But beyond the material question of enrichment is the spiritual one of ennoblement. Of what can Americans be more proud than that we so often opened our doors to those for whom every other door was shut?
All of which makes this a moment of unique shame for the United States.
The Trump administration has made no secret of its xenophobia from its first days in office. The number of refugees arriving in the country plummeted from around 97,000 in 2016 to 23,000 in 2018. Last week, The Times reported that the White House was considering options to cut the numbers again by half, and perhaps even bring it down to zero.
As if to underscore the spirit of cruelty, the administration also declined to grant temporary protected status to Bahamians devastated by Hurricane Dorian. And the Supreme Court issued an order allowing for a new rule that effectively denies asylum protections for refugees arriving through a third country — a victory for executive authority when that authority is in the worst possible hands.
Critics of this column will almost certainly complain that the United States can’t possibly take everyone in — a dishonest argument since hardly anyone argues for taking in “everyone,” and a foolish argument since America will almost inevitably decline without a healthy intake of immigrants to make up for a falling birthrate.
Critics will also claim that “very bad people,” as Donald Trump likes to say, might take advantage of a generous asylum and refugee policy. Here again I’m aware of nobody advocating a “let-the-terrorists-come-too” immigration policy. Only a person incapable of kindness — a person like the president — can think that kindness and vigilance are incompatible, or that generosity is for suckers.
The mother and daughter whose story I told at the beginning of this column are, as you might have guessed, my own grandmother and mother. I thank God it was Harry Truman, not Donald Trump, who led America when they had nowhere else to turn.