Last Sunday would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, a date that has prompted reflections on her life, death, and famous diary. Noting that by 1939 Frank’s parents were desperately trying to gain permission to enter the U.S., Rafael Medoff takes the occasion to examine the policies that prevented them from doing so:
Laws enacted by the U.S. Congress in the 1920s created a quota system to restrict immigration severely. . . . As president (beginning in 1933), Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a harsh immigration system and made it much worse. His administration went above and beyond the existing law to ensure that even those meager quota allotments were almost always underfilled. American consular officials abroad made sure to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas” to refugees, as one senior U.S. official put it in a memo to his colleagues. . . .
[In 1939], refugee advocates in Congress introduced the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 refugee children from Germany outside the quota system. Anne Frank and her sister Margot were German citizens, so they could have been among those children. Supporters of the bill assembled a broad, ecumenical coalition. . . . The former first lady Grace Coolidge announced that she and her neighbors in Northampton, Massachusetts, would personally care for 25 of the children.
Even though there was no danger that the children would take jobs away from American citizens, anti-immigration activists lobbied hard against the Wagner-Rogers bill. President Roosevelt’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration, articulated the sentiment of many opponents when she remarked at a dinner party that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” FDR himself refused to support the bill. By the spring of 1939, Wagner-Rogers was dead. . . .
At a press conference on June 5, 1940, the president warned of the “horrible” danger that Jewish refugees coming to America might actually serve the Nazis. They might begin “spying under compulsion” for Hitler, he said, out of fear that if they refused, their elderly relatives back in Europe “might be taken out and shot.” That’s right: Anne Frank, Nazi spy.