In September, 85 years ago, Nazi Germany passed its so-called Nuremberg Race Laws, ostensibly to keep Germany great.
The names for these laws, The Reich Citizenship Law and The Law for the Protection of the German Blood and Honor, gave this legislation a whiff of respectability.
Three years after the German people democratically elected Nazism to power, the party made good on its anti-Semitic platform. The legislation disenfranchised half a million German citizens, criminalizing identity by turning religion into a race. It prohibited intermarriage with Jews and nullified existing marriages. It made having sex with a Jew (and later Roma and Afro-Germans) a race crime. And it stripped German citizens of their citizenship, all based on whether one grandparent was Jewish.
Far from fixed or natural categories, both race and citizenship serve ruling ideologies as flexibly as they do arbitrarily.
In 1935, German Jews had thoroughly assimilated into German society. Many had converted to Christianity. Others were non-practicing. To combat the ancestral iniquity of being able to claim a single Jewish grandparent, German law both racialized and criminalized that person's very identity, not for what they did, but for who they were.
In casting these laws, the Nazis looked to U.S. immigration policy as model legislation. The U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship only to “free white people.” Not until 1870 could former slaves, born outside the United States and brought here against their will, claim to be an American.
Not until an 1898 Supreme Court decision could all children born in this country be born American.
Not until 1924 could Native Americans be American.
Not until 1943 did Congress repeal its explicitly racist bans on citizenship for Chinese immigrants.
Only in 1952 did the Immigration and Nationality Act abolish the overt use of race to determine citizenship.
Nonetheless, in 2018 the Supreme Court used this 1952 law to uphold a Trump administration executive order suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, banning Syrian refugees from this country indefinitely, and forbidding immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.
According to James Q. Whitman's recent book, “Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law,” the Nazi leader's autobiographical manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” praised America as an exceptional country, hailing how it excluded “certain races from naturalization.”
America has exported many things for which we should be proud. Our long history of using race to determine citizenship should not be among them.
Recognizing the benefits of immigrants and refugees often centers on the benefits they bring to a community. To be sure, both immigrants and refugees have made many contributions to this country, to Indiana and to Fort Wayne. But contributions alone cannot fully explain the benefits of welcoming immigrants and refugees to our community.
What we do to welcome immigrants and refugees is a fulfillment of our own citizenship. Citizenship is not something we bestow upon our finest citizens. It is what each of us does every day to live up to the content of our national character.
How we treat those we define as non-citizens defines who we are. That treatment defines what it means to be American, every bit as much as stripping away citizenship from citizens defined in 1935 what it meant to be German under the Nazis.
Aside from having immigration and naturalization policies that only Nazis could find enviable, our policies have edged uncomfortably close to genocidal complicity.
In 1939, the United States turned away 937 Jews fleeing Germany, confirming Nazi claims that the Jewish problem was a world problem. Earlier that year, Congress could have passed legislation saving 20,000 Jewish children from extermination. It didn't. We eventually shut our borders to the millions of Jewish refugees seeking to flee Europe.
Even today, the U.S. has closed its borders to refugees, many from predominantly Muslim countries and mostly women and children fleeing war crimes, genocide and other state-sponsored violence.
Once we reopen our borders to immigrants and refugees, let us do so for the right reasons. It is not the content of their character hanging in the balance. It is our own.
Steve Carr is director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Purdue University Fort Wayne.