`We are only following the law’

`We are only following the law’ doesn’t explain immigration policy during Nazi era or now

Holocaust historians’ first impulse is to reject comparisons between those dark decades and our present. We don’t want to be perceived as abusing history for political purposes or engaging in overly emotional analyses.

But then comes a moment when it’s not possible to avoid parallels.

For me, that moment came two weeks ago.

I study the American response to the Holocaust. I was researching the U.S. officials’ false claim that the nation’s inflexible immigration laws gave them no choice but to deny visas to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and early 1940s – and historians’ repetition of this false claim. From every media outlet came Trump administration officials spewing similar hollow arguments.

The law made me do it

During the Nazi era, the claim was based on the 1924 immigration law that set annual worldwide quotas, as well as country-by-country limits, on the number of immigrants to be admitted to the United States.

The problem with the claim and the idea that U.S. officials had no choice but to follow the law and limit immigration is that the quotas were never even close to being filled from 1933 to 1945, the 12 years of the Nazi regime.

About 200,000 refugees from Nazi Europe were admitted during that period to the U.S., while at least another 200,000 could have been under existing quotas. The quota for Germans of about 26,000 was filled in just one year, in 1939. In every other year, the quota ranged from 7 percent to 70 percent filled.

The law didn’t prevent U.S. officials from admitting more refugees. Officials chose to interpret and implement the nation’s immigration laws so as to exclude as many refugees from Nazi Europe as possible.

Yet at the time, and in many historical accounts, officials consistently blamed the law. That includes Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who explained why his administration could not help European Jews in 1943.

“American immigration policy was expressed [solely] in the laws enacted by Congress, which the executive branch had no power to alter,” said Long.

I want to know why so many historians cling to “the law-made-me-do-it” narrative, assuming that that narrative was all history.

It wasn’t.

History repeats

As criticism of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border ramped up in mid-June, U.S. officials trotted out their version of Long’s argument – though in less elevated language.

Asked why the administration adopted the “zero tolerance” policy, which led to criminal prosecutions of all those crossing the border seemingly illegally, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Thursday press conference, “because it’s the law, that’s what the law states.”

Front page of The New York Times, July 19, 1941. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Pressed again, Sanders said, “Again, the laws are the one, the laws that have been on the books for over a decade and the president is enforcing them.”

Sanders wasn’t the first Trump administration official to blame “the law” for immigration policy.

“We don’t deport anyone,” John Kelly declared, when he was still Homeland Security secretary. “American law deports people.”

Nor has Sanders been the last.

Kelly’s successor, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president have all said at various times – and then taken it back – that they had no choice.

Jobs and security

The Trump administration has justified its anti-immigrant policy as a way to help unemployed Americans. So did the Hoover administration and then the Roosevelt administration.

Faced with the Great Depression, Hoover decided in 1930 to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country, because – supposedly – they would take Americans’ jobs.

Hoover did it by changing the interpretation of a decades-old provisionthat enabled officials to deny visas to those who were “likely to become a public charge.” Under the new interpretation, almost every applicant was found likely to become a public charge with no guidance or consistency in what that meant.

Immigration dropped 90 percent in the first five months.

From 1933 to 1945, the Roosevelt administration continued to use this interpretation of the likely-to-become-a-public-charge clause and other provisions to keep immigration under what the law allowed, even after the economy picked up.

The Trump administration has claimed immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and to be national security risks, using unrepresentative anecdotes and amorphous fears to justify its policy.

So did the Roosevelt administration. One State Department lawyer maintained that officials should deny visas to those who had criminal tendencies, even if they have no criminal record.

Government officials during the Roosevelt administration also assumed a large proportion of immigrants, particularly Jewish ones, were communists determined to subvert democracy. They denied visas on that basis.

Officials also assumed German Jewish refugees would be spies for the Third Reich. That was based upon the flimsiest of evidence: a Cuban ambassador’s claim some Jewish refugees celebrated the fall of Paris to the Nazis and a former U.S. ambassador to France’s allegation that German Jewish refugees made up half the 200 spies the French Army arrested.

“I believe you should instruct our counter-espionage services of all sorts to keep an especially vigilant eye on the Jewish refugees from Germany,” William Bullitt, the ex-ambassador, wrote Roosevelt. “Sad, isn’t it?’”

Breckenridge Long, who worked to stop refugees from the Nazis from coming to the U.S.National Archives

Jewish refugees didn’t turn out to be spies. Of the 23,000 “enemy aliens” who arrived in 1940, for example, fewer than one-half of 1 percent were taken into custody for questioning. Only a fraction of those were indicted – for violating immigration regulations, not for espionage.

Denials of visas based on national security concerns and other reasons, however, meant that just 21,000 refugees entered the United States between Pearl Harbor and the war’s end, with quotas from Axis-controlled countries only 10 percent filled. Historian David Wyman estimates that the U.S. could have saved nearly 200,000 victims of the Nazis by allowing them to enter the country.

Who gets to be American

Based on my research, I have concluded that U.S. government officials’ fears about refugees from Nazism being public charges, criminals or security risks were primarily pretexts for their real concern. That concern was that allowing in too many refugees would fundamentally alter the nature of American society.

Many decision-makers, particularly in the State Department, hailed from the WASP elite and perceived ambitious Jews as threatening their exclusive domains. The fewer Jews in the United States, the greater the chance of preserving the country as it had been and as they wanted it to continue to be. These officials justified any position and tolerated any cruelty, including refusing to change immigration policies once it was known the Germans were exterminating all of Europe’s Jews.

Roosevelt administration officials turned out to be both right and wrong in their fears.

They were right that the European refugees who came before, during and after the war, though small in number, reshaped the world of higher education, the arts and the sciences and contributed to the rise of the postwar meritocracy. That postwar meritocracy broke down the class-based system that kept Jews and Italians and eventually blacks and Latinos out of elite institutions.

But they were wrong that these changes undermined American democracy or changed the country’s spirit.

The nation was better off letting in 200,000 refugees between 1933 and 1945. It would have been even better off filling the quotas and allowing in the additional 200,000 refugees. And it would have been better off still had the country admitted anyone in need and tried to save all those who were imperiled as the Holocaust unfolded.

Some might object, probably under their breath, that these refugees were different. They were “good” refugees.

But that is not how they were perceived at the time. And that is exactly the point and precisely the parallel.

When Policies And Procedures Do Not Reflect The Way Things Are Really Done

An organization’s cultural capital is a type of asset that impacts what an organization produces and how it operates. Cultural capital is analogous to physical capital, like equipment, buildings, and property, or to human capital, like the accumulated knowledge and skills of workers, or reputational capital, like franchise value or brand recognition. In an organization with a high level of cultural capital, misconduct risk is low, and its organizational structures, processes, formal incentives, and desired business outcomes are consistent with the firm’s stated values. Unspoken patterns of behavior reinforce this alignment and drive corporate outcomes.

By contrast, in an organization with low levels of cultural capital, formal policies and procedures do not reflect the way things are really done — that is, the stated values of the organization are not reflected in the behavior of senior leaders or the actions of the organization’s members. Misconduct then results from norms and pressures that drive individuals to make decisions that are not aligned with the values, business strategies, and risk appetite set by the board and senior leaders. Rules may be followed to the letter, but not in spirit. All of this increases misconduct risk and potentially damages the organization and the industry over time.

As with other forms of tangible and intangible capital, an organization must invest in cultural capital or it will deteriorate over time and adversely impact the organization’s productive capacity.

If principles are going to be used, they have to be easy to remember

The objects we call books aren’t the real books, observed contemporary American essayist Rebecca Solnit. They’re the potential for one; the real book “exists fully only in the act of being read,” she writes. So too with leadership principles: They only really exist if employees are thinking about them, saying them to themselves, bringing them up in conversation with colleagues. The principles have to get stuck inside their heads like a pop song.

Drawing on the neuroscience literature, we realized that the right model would be pithy to the point of ready recall. (Simply put, the harder it is to remember something, the less it’ll be remembered.) Working with NLI, the Microsoft senior leadership team came up with six words to maximize memorability — create clarity, generate energy, deliver success — based on what they believed were the most important things that leaders at Microsoft would need to do to lead the company forward.

The key is to find the word or phrase that captures the priority you’re trying to invoke. Create clarity sought to focus everyone on creating more-compelling products and solutions with the customer even more in mind. Generate energy was needed to turn the culture to even more innovation. Deliver success served as a reminder of what truly mattered most.

But becoming easy to remember is hard to do

Microsoft had historically tried to arrive at a leadership model the same way most companies do: by way of subtraction. That means taking a framework of half a dozen categories, with five to 10 elements each, then shaving it down from there. This is incredibly difficult, because it feels painful to leave anything out.

There’s an assumption underlying this that makes sense for a tech giant. We often assume that human memory is like a computer — capable of right-clicking on anything important and saving it without incident. But rather than hardware, we have wetware, and the organ inside our skulls can handle only so much information at once.

Instead of editing down, you have to start with boundaries around how much information people can recall easily, then put the most important things into that space. Just as you’d design an app according to the capacity of a device, you need to design language to the capacity of a brain.

Brain scientists call our recall of sounds echoic memory, and it lasts for only a handful of seconds. It turns out that if a statement takes less than three seconds to say to yourself or say out loud, it is significantly easier to recall and use. Any time you craft an idea that you want people to remember easily, if the idea can be said out loud in under three seconds, the chances of usage go up dramatically.