In May 1939, the SS St. Louis circled Cuba and cruised the Florida coast waiting for permission to dock and unload its cargo of 900 Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

The permission never came. The United States had strict immigration quotas at the time and those quotas were popular in a country suffering from a nine-year economic tailspin, which, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, fed an atmosphere of “anti-Semitism, xenophobia, nativism and isolationism.”

The refusal to accept the St. Louis’ refugees is a shameful moment in America’s past. History doesn’t offer any do-overs, but some things come close.

African immigrants who have escaped persecution as bad as what was happening in 1930s Germany are asking for our help. Again we are failing to do the right thing.

It’s happening in every level of government. We have federal policy that prevents immigrants who are seeking asylum from working while they wait for their day in court, and also denies them federal assistance.

In Maine, we have a governor who has practically made xenophobia and nativism an official state policy.

And if that weren’t bad enough, a measure to prevent a humanitarian crisis for immigrants just barely passed the Portland City Council last week.

If the council hadn’t acted, 900 asylum-seeking immigrants would have suddenly been dropped from the General Assistance rolls and made homeless July 1.

Four out of nine city councilors in the most liberal city in the state – one of the most liberal cities in America – felt that limiting a property tax increase was more important than extending food and shelter to people who have nowhere else to turn.

Fortunately, there were five on the other side. It was a politically courageous act, requiring a tax increase to help people who can’t vote. They were Mayor Michael Brennan and councilors David Marshall, Kevin Donoghue, Justin Costa and David Brenerman, and their vote deserves respect.

But they didn’t do enough. The city budget extends services only for one year and only for those immigrants who have already applied for aid in Portland. Future immigrants will have to find a place to live and food to eat on their own during the time in which they cannot work.

This is one of those times in history when Americans are being called on to do the right thing and we are blowing it.

We are witnessing a slow-motion Holocaust in Africa, which is scattering refugees around the world. Unlike Nazi Germany, there is not a single world power behind this reign of terror, but multiple dictators, rebel groups and paramilitary organizations that drive people from their homes to escape prison, torture or death because of who they are, what they believe or how they vote.

There may be no Hitler and no final solution, but on a case-by-case basis, the consequences for individual victims are just as dire.

Asylum-seeking immigrants have been finding their way to Maine because we were one of the few states in the country willing to help them put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies through our General Assistance program. This is especially important in the six months or more in which they wait for their applications to be considered in federal immigration court. During that time, they are not allowed to work.

We should feel proud of that generosity. But our governor has turned asylum seekers into a convenient political punching bag, blaming them for his administration’s failure to help needy senior citizens and people with disabilities.

He falsely calls asylum seekers “illegals.” He has falsely claimed that they lied to get here, and he argues with no evidence that they are bringing diseases to our state.

In the state budget negotiations, ending aid to asylum seekers was a non-negotiable demand from Republican House members, who called it “welfare reform.” They carried the day.

In this toxic environment, the Portland City Council was forced to make a decision. This is not a local problem, but a cascade of government failures on the state and federal level has made it one.

The council did the right thing – just barely.

The simplest solution would be for federal authorities to issue a work permit as soon as someone applies for asylum.

The next step would be to increase the minimum wage to the point where people who work full time can support their families and wouldn’t need aid.

But that takes time, and the ship is circling now. We can send these people away, or offer to help.

History tells us which choice is the right one.

 


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