July 1938, three years after the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Germany's Jews of citizenship and most political rights, a Fortune magazine poll of Americans asked, "What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees to come to the U.S.?" More than two-thirds answered that they believed refugees should be kept out.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass") resulted in the destruction of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, the murders of 91 Jews and the deportation of 26,000 to concentration camps.
Two months later, another poll asked whether the U.S. government should permit "10,000 refugee children from Germany — most of them Jewish — to be taken care of in American homes." An astounding and shameful 61 percent said no. With the backdrop of this public opinion, in May 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 mostly Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, was turned away from the U.S. and sent back to Europe, where almost a quarter of its passengers subsequently died in the Holocaust.
Today, nearly 60 million people have been displaced from their homes, a significant number of which have fled the war in Syria, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The news that one of the assailants of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris may have entered France with a fake passport, among a group of Syrian refugees, has led some to argue that it is simply too dangerous to accept any refugees to the U.S.
But refugees are victims of terrorism, not perpetrators. In fact, the vetting process for refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. is strict and thorough, involving background checks by the State Department, the FBI, and U.S. and international intelligence agencies, as well as in-person interviews conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.
The U.S., unlike Europe, has the luxury of allowing in refugees only after the thorough screening process, which often takes as long as three years. Claiming refugee status is the single most difficult way to enter the U.S., and there have been no recorded terrorist attacks committed in the U.S. by those who have done so.
Yet many question the wisdom of allowing Syrian refugees into Western countries. More than half of U.S. governors, including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, have requested at least a pause in the resettlement of refugees in their states. The Anti-Defamation League opposes these attempts to reject refugees from the Syrian conflict.
In addition to the anti-refugee rhetoric, there have been reports of an escalation of hostility toward Muslims in the U.S., including acts of vandalism and attacks on mosques. Some elected officials and presidential candidates have supported the idea of a database to track Muslims, proposed allowing in only Christian refugees and called refugees "rabid dogs." The idea of tracking Americans or selectively accepting refugees on the basis of religion is not only inimical to our American values, it also wildly misses the worthy goal of establishing a rational balance between civil liberties and security measures.
When thinking about the victims of the heinous attacks in Paris, we should remember that the refugees fleeing Syria are trying to escape the same Islamic State horror we just witnessed. Moreover, we must never lose sight of the core American principles at stake here — that the American Dream is accessible to all, irrespective of one's gender, skin color, country of origin or religion. Reacting to the recent terrorist attacks with fear is not the answer. We should focus our energies on working collectively to create the open, free and secure society on which our country is based.