[in the 1930’s] Congress …established annual immigration quotas that discriminated against certain national origins, but White House officials considered even these quotas to be too generous. They brandished an obscure provision of immigration law that excluded visa applicants “likely to become public charges.” A …stricter interpretation of the public charge provision …[was proposed to] effectively reduce the quotas by as much as 90%.
…In 1933, in the first term of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, his Administration considered changing the public charge clause to allow for the entry of more refugees from Germany. (At the time the United States did not distinguish between immigrants and refugees, nor was there any such thing as political asylum.) …There were State Department officials who thought American Jewish protests against Nazi persecution were exaggerated and artificial, part of a Jewish scheme to ease American barriers to increased immigration.
…A November 1938 poll, taken immediately after Kristallnacht, showed that 71% of Americans opposed the entrance into their country of a larger number of German exiles, while only 21% supported it. A few months later, 66% of a sample opposed bringing 10,000 refugee children to the U.S. beyond what was permitted by the quota; only 26% supported it.
…After the rapid German conquest of France, pervasive concerns about American security fostered a fearful and resentful climate of opinion; Roper Poll in June 1940 found that only 2.7% of Americans thought the government was doing enough to counteract a Nazi “Fifth Column” operating in the U.S. German Jews were not immune from these suspicions. Some Americans thought Jews could be coerced into spying for Germany based on threats to their relatives in Germany; others, including a former undersecretary of state, thought that inherent “Jewish greed” might lead refugees and immigrants to work for the Nazi cause. By mid-1941 the State Department instructed consuls to deny visas to applicants who had relatives living in the totalitarian countries of Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy.
… Only in January 1944 did the Roosevelt administration, responding to some criticism and internal pressures, change course again, establishing a War Refugee Board to try to save the lives of civilian victims of Nazi persecution. The Board helped tens of thousands of Jews survive in Europe in the last 16 months of the war.
…The same vague language in the public charge clause that allowed Hoover to cut quotas by some 90%, and that allowed some State Department officials in Roosevelt’s first term to maintain that the German quota was unfilled because of the lack of “qualified” applicants, was set to be put to new use earlier this month.