To the Editor:

Recently there has been heated debate regarding the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and whether the US should take these refugees in. I would like to share the following historical anecdote to enunciate my own views on this complicated, frankly terrifying, subject:

The S.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany in 1939 carrying a human cargo, 937 refugees (mostly Jews) who were fleeing an intensifying persecution at the hands of the Nazi regime. After almost all were denied entry into Cuba (their planned destination) the ship circled the coast of Florida hoping that the federal government would intervene and allow the passengers to disembark. Some leapt from the decks hoping to swim to shore, but were collected by Coast Guard ships and were returned to their purgatorial cruise.

The United States had already met its immigration quota as stipulated by the Immigration Act of 1924. Considering widespread nativist sentiment, President Roosevelt dared not exert federal authority to grant the refugees asylum. Those people reluctantly sailed back to Europe, unceremoniously sentenced to live at Mr. Hitler’s discretion. More than 200 of them were murdered by the Nazis before 1945.

The United States had the opportunity to let those people live but refused to act. Americans collectively decided in 1939 that the plight of European Jews was not their concern and that they felt no obligation to protect them. Do we feel this way today about the Syrians? Are we willing to make that call again?

While we may feel fear in the face of this wave of humanity (and we arguably have a right to) it is not only morally praiseworthy but also strategically valuable to US prestige abroad to let the refugees live here. What better argument for American democracy is there than to take in such pitiable victims of clannism, theocracy, and tyranny? What an opportunity we have to showcase to both enemies and allies that we mean it when we say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

Matthew Silber