In July 1941, Albert Einstein, ten months a US citizen, wrote Eleanor Roosevelt from his Saranac Lake retreat to register “deep concern” at the policies of her husband’s administration. A “wall of bureaucratic measures” erected by the State Department, “alleged to be necessary to protect America against subversive, dangerous elements,” had, he wrote, made “it all but impossible to give refuge in America to many worthy persons who are the victims of Fascist cruelty in Europe.”
Einstein asked the First Lady to raise this “truly grave injustice” with the president, but his appeal had limited effect. Paranoia that refugees would, if granted entry to America, turn on their host and spy for its enemies persisted. The annihilation the following year of some 2.7 million Jews—nearly half of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust—could not dispel this prejudice. Nor did the killing in 1942 result—amid economic depression, the battle against the Axis, and strains of popular and political xenophobia—in a US response to the refugees’ plight. The American “wall” against refugees would remain largely standing until the beginning of 1944, the year before the Allied victory.
The source of Einstein’s vexation that summer has returned to public life. We are again seeing a double assault against some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Their character and intentions are often impugned and they are denied dignified refuge. A day after American-born Omar Mateen’s June 12 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, warned of “a better, bigger version of the legendary Trojan horse,” declaring: “We have to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States—we don’t know who they are, they have no documentation, and we don’t know what they’re planning.”
Trump’s claims are myth, not fact. Of the nearly 5.5 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria during the past five and a half years, around 10,000—less than 0.2 percent of the total Syrian refugee population—have been resettled in the US from Syria’s neighbors this year. We know who they are, because refugees are the single most vetted population entering the US. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registers, documents, and verifies the claim of all those whom it refers to the government for resettlement. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and multiple intelligence agencies then conduct interviews, gather detailed biographical and biometric data, and carry out a range of background checks on every candidate before they…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.