On May 13, 1939, a German ship called the MS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba, carrying 937 passengers – nearly all of them Jewish refugees who were escaping persecution from the Nazi Party.
Most of the passengers were planning to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States, hoping for a better future. But when the ship arrived in Havana two weeks later, all but 28 passengers were turned away.
It then set sail for the United States.
In the wake of the Great Depression, which instilled a sense of xenophobia and nativism within many in the United States, most Americans were opposed to immigration. That sentiment, in addition to gains of the isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections one year earlier, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make a drastic decision.
He turned the MS St. Louis away without allowing a single passenger to disembark.
It wasn’t an isolated decision. Three months earlier, the U.S. government failed to pass a bill that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany.
The MS St. Louis returned to Europe, where the passengers were eventually settled into four different countries. According to historical records, 254 of them – more than 25% of the original manifest – died in the Holocaust.
Until recently, this tragic tale served as a warning of what happens when we give in to prejudice. It reminded us of the importance of helping those in desperate need.
And because of it, the U.S. has served as a worldwide example of welcoming those who are escaping oppression and war. It’s the Statue of Liberty that is often the first thing immigrants and refugees see upon their arrival on our shores – the ultimate symbol that we are the home of the brave, and the land of the free.
Donald Trump’s temporary ban on all refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, and permanent ban on Syrian refugees is the biggest test to American values, and the U.S. Constitution, since World War II.
Right now is when we learn exactly what type of country we are.
Oppressive and totalitarian regimes use the unwillingness of other nations to admit refugees to justify their actions. It’s up to other countries to step up and show where their values really lie, and to stand up to tyranny.
It’s a test that we ave now failed. And of all days, Trump signed the order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Home of the brave?
Right now, we are the home of the cowards.
The outrage to Trump’s executive order – widely hailed as a discriminatory and unconstitutional ban on Muslims – has been immediate and widespread. Protests are popping up in cities and airports throughout the country.
And the ACLU has sprung into action, already earning a victory when a federal judge in Brooklyn forbade the deportation of foreigners who were being detained at the JFK airport in the hours following last Friday’s order.
The fight is only beginning.
In America, we’re constitutionally forbidden to discriminate upon religion or ethnicity. Though Trump’s order never mentions Islam or Muslims, it’s clear who it is targeting, and Rudy Giuliani all but admitted on national TV that it is a Muslim ban.
Despite my strong opinions on this blog, I mostly refrain from discussing politics on Facebook. I simply view it as an inappropriate forum to discuss such polarizing topics, at risk of alienating people I know.
But the one instance during the 2016 election season that forced me to stand up for my beliefs was when Donald Trump first announced his desire to implement a Muslim ban. I personally know people who are Muslim, and they are just as peace-loving as anybody I know.
Even as that happened, Democrats viewed Trump’s words as empty rhetoric to appeal to his base, never believing it would be put into action.
The order is already having far-reaching consequences. Countries are planning retaliatory actions on the U.S. The order also punishes foreign citizens who have aided the U.S., including Iraqis who worked as interpreters for American troops.
After this action, why the hell would they want to help us anymore?
It bears repeating: this is a test to our democracy. What happens over the following days, months and years will determine how this period in our country is remembered in history books.
It’s already been stained, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be rewritten.
Remember the MS St. Louis.