"...America's immigration laws placed quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States from other countries. In 1939, the quota allowed for 27,370 German citizens to immigrate to the United States. In 1938, more than 300,000 Germans-mostly Jewish refugees-had applied for U.S. visas (entry permits). A little over 20,000 applications were approved. Beyond the strict national quotas, the United States openly denied visas to any immigrant "likely to become a public charge." This ruling proved to be a serious problem for many Jewish refugees. Most had lost everything when the Nazis took power, and they might need government assistance after they immigrated to the United States.
Shortly after she was appointed to the cabinet, Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt's secretary of labor, proposed an executive order on refugees and immigration. Perkins suggested that the State Department should give priority to immigrants seeking refuge from racial or religious persecution. The State Department objected to this order because it would antagonize relations with Germany and alienate jobless American citizens. FDR never issued the order, and State Department officials in Europe continued to reject many visa applications from Jewish refugees.
In September 1935, Nazi Germany passed laws that deprived German Jews of their citizenship. Without citizenship, Jews were legally defenseless. Many lost their jobs and property. Hitler also targeted with violence and persecution countless thousands of gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals, and even the physically and mentally impaired. With so many Germans fleeing their homeland, the State Department temporarily eased immigration quotas. In 1936, the State Department approved visas for about 7,000 German refugees. By 1938, that number had increased to more than 20,000. But an opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans still opposed admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees into the United States. Despite pleas by American human-rights organizations, the U.S. State Department refused to increase the German quota any further.
In May 1939, only a few months before war began in Europe, a passenger ship called the St. Louis left Germany carrying nearly a thousand refugees, most of them Jews. Many of these people had already qualified for, but had not yet received, American visas. They arranged for temporary Cuban tourist visas that would let them wait outside of Germany for U.S. visas. When the St. Louis reached Havana, however, the Cuban government had changed its visa regulations. It refused to allow most of the refugees to land.
Forced to leave Cuban waters, the St. Louis sailed up the Florida coast. The U.S. Coast Guard followed close behind to prevent any passengers from swimming ashore. The State Department refused to allow the refugees to land without special legislation by Congress or an executive order from the president. Efforts by American Jewish organizations to work out a compromise failed. The desperate passengers aboard the St. Louis sent President Roosevelt a telegram pleading their case. He never replied.
Political realities may have influenced Roosevelt's decision to remain silent. Most Americans opposed entering the approaching European war. Many felt that America's best interest lay in avoiding foreign conflicts. Others were disillusioned by the U.S. intervention in World War I and wanted to avoid the loss of American lives. These views had strong support in Congress. In addition, Roosevelt knew that the United States was not yet prepared for war and was reluctant to antagonize the Nazi regime.
Finally, the St. Louis returned to Europe and several nations granted asylum to the refugees. But when Hitler's troops marched through Europe, the Nazis eventually caught most of the St. Louis' ill-fated passengers and sent them to concentration camps.
On the eve of World War II, a bill that would have admitted Jewish refugee children above the regular quota limits was introduced in Congress. President Roosevelt took no position on the bill, and it died in committee in the summer of 1939. Polls at the time indicated that two-thirds of Americans opposed taking in Jewish refugee children..."
History Lesson 5: U.S. Immigration Policy and Hitler's Holocaust