asylum seekers

The St. Louis was a German ship that carried more than 900 passengers across the Atlantic — many of whom were Jewish asylum seekers fleeing the Holocaust. After the U.S. turned them away, more than 250 of them died.

On May 27, 1939, the St. Louis docked in Havana, Cuba, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The Cuban government only admitted 28 of its passengers — 22 of whom were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas. More than 700 passengers were awaiting U.S. visas while the ship was docked in Cuba. However, the U.S. government was unwilling to admit them.

While then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have issued an executive order allowing safe harbor to the Jewish asylum seekers, the U.S. was in the midst of an extremely anti-immigrant political climate, according to the USHMM, even though there was also a general consensus against the Nazi regime and Hitler’s policies.

In 1939, the U.S.’s German-Austrian immigration quota of 27,370 people was quickly filled, and the waitlist was already several years long. Admitting the passengers of the St. Louis would have meant denying other German Jews that placed higher on the waitlist. A bipartisan bill sponsored by then-Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Massachusetts) and then-Senator Robert Wagner (D-New York) to lift the immigration quota by an additional 20,000 people died in committee.

Much of the anti-immigrant climate was likely economic in nature. According to the USHMM, the vast majority of Americans were against changing laws to allow more immigrants into the country:

The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.

On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis returned for Europe. While it had come close to the Florida coast, neither the U.S. nor Canada would admit the asylum seekers. While Great Britain took 288 passengers, the Netherlands took 181, France temporarily took in 224, and 214 were admitted into Belgium, 254 asylum seekers still ended up dying in the Holocaust. The Twitter account @stl_manifest is spending the day tweeting the photos and stories of the 254 St. Louis passengers turned away by the U.S. government who ended up dying.

“My name is Joachim Hirsch. 80 years ago today I sought asylum at the US border and was turned away. I was murdered in Auschwitz,” one tweet read.

The Trump administration’s policy of turning away asylum seekers coming across the U.S./Mexico border to flee gang and drug violence has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). According to the ACLU, both U.S. and international law dictate that asylum seekers be allowed to apply for asylum at international ports of entry, and be allowed to remain while their applications are being processed.

While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contends that it doesn’t have the resources to deal with the asylum seekers seeking refuge, the ACLU pointed out that the agency hasn’t had problems dealing with more refugees in the past, with fewer resources to boot.

“CBP is the country’s largest law enforcement agency and in 2018 it has processed 1.1 million fewer people arriving at our southern border than crossed in the year 2000. At that time, the agency had less than half the budget and at least 10,000 fewer officers,” the ACLU wrote in an October blog post. “For months, the ACLU and other organizations have been asking CBP to clarify why it is refusing to process asylum seekers at the border. We have inquired at all levels of CBP, from port supervisors to Commissioner Kevin McAleenan himself. We have received only amorphous, vague responses.”


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.


  1. Trump administration is illuminating the Hypocrisy of the USA…. Exposing the roots of Inhumanity within a Christian educated nation.. Crucifying what their Racism desires… Just as they did in Poland… Just as they do to this day.. Names have changed but the Evil remains the same…

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