Roosevelt versus the refugees: One FDR policy that Bernie Sanders never mentions

tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, FDR, refugees, Bernie Sanders

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.

In his recent major policy speech at Georgetown University, Bernie Sanders repeatedly invoked the name of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He hailed “the bold and visionary leadership” of FDR, recalling how “Roosevelt led a transformation of the American government and the American economy.”

Sanders often cites Roosevelt as his role model and the New Deal as the template for Sanders’s vision of America. Yet at Georgetown, as on so many other occasions, there was one important area of Roosevelt’s policies that Sanders conspicuously failed to mention: immigration.

Sanders favors a much more liberal U.S. immigration policy. Not Roosevelt. In fact, FDR’s immigration policy was so strict that if Sanders’s father, Eli, had not arrived from Poland before Roosevelt became president, he probably would not have been admitted.

Sanders’s father came to the United States in 1921, the same year that President Warren Harding signed legislation to link immigration and national origins. The new law stipulated that the number of immigrants from any one country during a given year could not exceed 3% of the number of people from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 national census. In other words, if there were 10,000 individuals of Irish origin living in the United States in 1910, the number of immigrants permitted from Ireland in any year would be a maximum of 300.

In 1924, under President Calvin Coolidge, the immigration regulations were tightened even further. The percentage was reduced from 3% to 2%, and instead of the 1910 census, the quota numbers would be based on an earlier census, the one taken in 1890.

That shift to the earlier census was revealing. Anti-immigration sentiment was fueled in large part by bigotry. In fact, the original version of the immigration bill was submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, which characterized would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as "filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits ... lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit."

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