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What the Immigration Ban Says About Moral Progress…

“Progress doesn’t follow a straight line. It zigs and zags, and sometimes it moves forward and sometimes it moves backwards or moves sideways. I am a firm believer that ultimately it moves in the direction of justice, and more prosperity, and more freedom, and more inclusion”. Barack Obama.

A Tale of Two Brothers

Aszer Selig Ast, my grandfather, left the Polish region of Krakow with his brother in the mid-1930s. His brother moved to the United States and settled in the Bronx, where he became a union leader. My grandfather was refused because the US had immigration quotas for Jews. So he headed south and settled in Buenos Aires.

Being a Jew looking for asylum was not a good position to be in the 1930s. Application procedures for visas were demanding:

“In the case of the United States, applicants were required to provide affidavits from multiple sponsors and to have secured a waiting number within a quota established for their country of birth, which severely limited their chances to emigrate” (Holocaust Encyclopedia)

After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and Nazi-sponsored violence in both Austria and Germany dramatically increased the numbers of Jews seeking to emigrate, pressure mounted on US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to address the refugee crisis. The response was an international conference in the French resort town of Evian on July, 1938. Nothing was achieved in the Évian Conference.

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships”. Adolf Hitler, in a speech at Konigsberg, commenting on the Evian Conference.

On May 13th, the SS St. Louis ship departed from Hamburg, Germany with 937 Jewish refugees looking to escape the Nazi regime. Immigration officials in Cuba, the United States, and Canada refused to allow entry to a majority of the passengers. The ship returned to Europe and landed in Belgium with 907 passengers. When the Second World War began in September, these refugees were in the crosshairs of Nazi Germany again. Hundreds were captured and transported to concentration camps (read more about this).

1939. Jewish refugees cheer as the SS St Louis is allowed to enter Antwerp, Belguim. After departing from Germany, the passengers had been refused entry in Cuba, Canada and the United States. Many would die in concentration camps.

The US loosened immigration policy for Jews as late as January 1944, when evidence of mass murder in concentraton camps was too widespread to overlook. That month, Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) to facilitate the rescue of refugees. Nobody knows how many Jews were murdered because nobody would take them.

Both my grandfather and his brother survived. One in New York. The other in Buenos Aires. They sent each other one letter each year. They only reunited forty years after the last time they said goodbye, when my father paid his father a trip to the United States.

Concentration Camps in America

In February 19, 1942, a couple of months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed executive order 9066, that gave military commanders exceptional power. This was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire West Coast since the government saw them as potential spies. About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived in the Pacific coast were incarcerated in internment camps. About 70,000 were US citizens. Many internees lost all their personal property because they only were allowed to take what they could carry into the camps.

It is evident, at least to me, that the immigration ban is disgusting and that Donald Trump is a lunatic. There is, however, reason for hope that the damage a lunatic can do in power seems lower that in previous times. America has reached a level of “moral development” (for lack of better word) that makes some policies unthinkable and unenforceable.

In the 1930s, bans where enacted against ethnic groups such as Jews and Japanese (even those who where US citizens). In the 2010s, the ban is against individuals defined by legal country of citizenship. An executive order targeted against an ethnic group would be unenforceable, let alone incarcerating a US citizen because of his or her “Muslim ethnic origin” (whatever that means).

It is, after all, comforting to see that millions of Americans are protesting against injustice. Nobody protested for the Jews and the Japanese in the 1940s. The moral bar has moved higher in the last decades. While the immigration ban sucks, when seen in context, it might be part of a narrative of progress. As Antonio Gramsci wrote:

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time for monsters”.



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Federico Ast

Federico Ast

Ph.D. Blockchain & Legaltech Entrepreneur. Singularity University Alumnus. Founder at Kleros. Building the Future of Law. @federicoast /