U.S. immigration officials have been refusing to issue passports to Hispanic American citizens.
On August 29, 2018, the Washington Post reported that US immigration officials have been refusing to issue passports to Hispanic Americans. This despite the fact that they possess birth certificates, despite their many contributions to American society, despite even their service in the United States military. With that development, the country has taken a significant step closer to realizing Donald Trump’s vision of America as a white, Christian herrenvolk democracy. What began as exclusion with the Muslim travel ban in early 2017 has now advanced to the level of expulsion—denaturalizing American citizens based (for now) on ethnicity. We’ve gone from preventing people who belong to allegedly “undesirable” groups from entering the national community to actually removing people who are already in it.
The enormity of such a shift cannot be overstated. Those who have found the growing number of comparisons to Nazi Germany distasteful or far-fetched must realize that we are now squarely in that territory. Hitler did not start with Auschwitz. With Germany’s Jews, he began with exclusion and then moved on to expulsion. Only later, under the particular circumstances of the war, did he decide on extermination. How close do we have to get to that point for us to realize how dangerous our situation has become? How close before we act to stop our country’s frightening descent into the abyss? How close are we to the point at which we may no longer be able to act? Germans learned this lesson, many at the cost of their lives. What can we learn from that nightmare experience?
To understand the significance of Hitler’s efforts to remove the Jews from the German national community, it’s important to remember just how integrated they were in German society. German Jews were among the most, if not the most, assimilated Jews in all of Europe. They embraced every aspect of German culture, from literature and the arts to science and medicine and more. And not only did they take in all that Germany had to offer, but they also gave back. Whether in the cultural, intellectual, or scientific realm, Jews contributed to the nation in numbers that made them stand out (so much so that their prominence in some fields was often used against them by the country’s antisemites). And when it came to the ultimate sacrifice, Jews served their country in the First World War alongside their Christian neighbors and died alongside them, too. How could such a group of people who were so well-integrated into German society be removed from it in so short a time? How did Hitler and the Nazis do it?
On March 15, 1933, less than two months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Nazi Interior Minister Frick ordered an end to the naturalizing of Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe (Ostjuden). Only four months later, on July 14, they moved from the denial of naturalization to those entering the country to the removal of citizenship to those already there. According to the new law, Jews who had been naturalized between November 9, 1918 and January 30, 1933—during the time of what the Nazis considered the illegitimate Weimar Republic—could have their citizenship stripped. As a result, more than six thousand Jews along with their families lost their citizenship.
In 1935, the infamous Nuremberg Laws included a citizenship law that established two classes of citizen. First, those of “German or related blood” became Reichsbürger, and thereby retained their political rights. Jews were demoted to the status of German Staatsangehörige (subjects of the state) and denied the rights they once enjoyed as full citizens. In October 1938, the Interior Ministry declared the passports of German Jews to be invalid. In order to get a new passport, they had to have their old one stamped with the letter “J” to mark (and separate) them as Jews. And in November 1941—just one month after the start of Jewish deportations to the east—the government issued a law that immediately denaturalized all Jews upon emigration.
In all this time—while all these measures were being enacted—there were no protests, no significant efforts to change the government’s policies toward the Jews or impede its progress. No doubt many people felt that they were in no danger themselves. They weren’t Jewish. They were German, with the privilege of membership in theVolksgemeinschaft, the “people’s community” Hitler was working to forge. Speaking out to save Jews risked being removed along with them. Better to remain quiet. Better to protect those closest to you. Such thinking made the government’s job significantly easier. But did it really work to protect them all? For some, the answer turned out to be an unfortunate no.
While people typically think of Jews when the topic of Nazi population policy comes up, we need to remember that others were swept up in the effort to forge a German national/racial community. For instance, the same law of July 14, 1933 that gave the government the ability to denaturalize Jews who gained citizenship during the Weimar Republic applied to non-Jews as well. In fact, more than 3,500 non-Jews found themselves stripped of their German citizenship.
And there was more. That very same law also allowed for the denaturalization of emigrants whose “conduct … violates the duty of loyalty to the Reich and the [German] Volk and damages German interests.” A stipulation that broadly framed could be used by the government to strip virtually anyone of their citizenship. By 1937, the government expanded the use of the law to include Jews who’d gained citizenship outside the legally established boundary of 1919-1933.
The Nuremberg Laws, too, while representing a key moment in the history of German Jews, affected many who had believed themselves safely within the confines of the Volksgemeinschaft. That’s because the citizenship law and the commentaries that followed defined Jews as people with three or more Jewish grandparents. Many Germans had no idea that there were Jews in their family tree and learning the truth proved to be a potentially life and death matter. Those people with three or more Jewish grandparents, but whose parents had converted to Christianity suddenly found themselves in the same place as the Jews. They, too, were now “subjects of the state,” stripped of their previous rights of citizenship. Like the Jews, they were now outside the boundary that separated members from non-members. They had stayed quiet, believing themselves to be Germans, and therefore safe. That was a mistake. For within a few years they would find themselves on trains heading east, to the ghettos and camps in Poland, destined to share the horrible fate of those they had once looked at with indifference, from across the boundary that separated citizen from non-citizen, member from non-member of Hitler’s German national community.
Right now there are no trains taking tens of thousands of people to some horrible destination. But that’s no reason for complacency. Americans right now are being stripped of their citizenship. They are being legally, if not yet physically, removed from the national community that Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, and others hope to forge. They are Hispanic Americans. But for those who are not Hispanic, that is also no reason for complacency. For the president considers many more people—American citizens all—to be undesirable, damaging, dangerous elements who must be removed.
It started with Jews in Germany. But we know it did not end with them. It’s happening to Hispanic Americans now. Where it goes from here we don’t know. What we do know—what history teaches—is that we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, comfortable, and worst of all, silent. The lessons of German history came at a horrific cost. Don’t squander them because you feel safe, for the truth is, in Trump’s America nobody is.