The Sad Truth Behind What's in Store for Refugees Headed for America

November 17th 2015

In response to the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a growing number of American politicians have voiced their opposition to accepting Syrian refugees, arguing that it would put the country at risk of violent extremism. For many, this reaction seems xenophobic and inhumane—a "betrayal of our values," as Pres. Barack Obama put it on Monday—but it is not without precedent.

RELATED: Pres. Obama Just Powerfully Fought Back Against Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

If you go back 77 years ago, you'll find evidence of the same brand of American xenophobia in public opinion polls about political refugees from Europe, many of whom were Jewish people fleeing fascist states. In 1938, for example, fewer than five percent of Americans felt that we should encourage refugees to to come into the U.S., even if that meant raising the immigration quota. As the Washington Post points out the below poll was taken before "Kristallnacht—a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in areas controlled by the Nazis—had yet to take place. And the poll's use of the term "political refugees" could have conjured in the minds of the American public images of communists, anarchists and other perceived ideological threats."

That opinion seemed to hold strong across several U.S. demographics, the American Institute of Public Opinion found. Almost 70 percent of college students said that America should not create a safe haven for Jewish refugees from Central Europe. And in 1939—after Kristallnacht—more than 60 percent of Americans agreed that the U.S. should not accept 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children.

While the historical context of these polls is important to consider (the Great Depression ended in 1939, for example, meaning that the country might have been less inclined to accept refugees for economic reasons), the parallels between these opinions and those being expressed by conservative politicians in the U.S. today are nevertheless striking.

At last count, governors of 23 states in the U.S. have announced that they would not accept Syrian refugees, citing concerns about the vetting process and possible terrorist activity. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie went so far as to say that we shouldn't accept refugees even if they were five-year-old orphans because, as he explained, "How are we going to care for these folks?"

RELATED: Why It's Disgraceful to Blame Refugees for the Attacks in Paris

To be sure, the attacks in Paris have stunned the world, leading many to question if enough is being done to prevent violent extremism in ostensibly secure nations. But looking back at these polls also raises a series of questions about how we respond to crises abroad. Many people would argue that those polled in 1938 and 1939 about Jewish refugees were callous and/or bigoted. Seventy-seven years from now, what will people think when they reflect upon the American response to the current refugee crisis?

Share your opinion

Should the U.S. accept more Syrian refugees?

No 16%Yes 84%