Dear Miss Perkins: A Story of Frances Perkins's Efforts to Aid Refugees from Nazi Germany, 1933-1940
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On March 4, 1933, Frances Perkins became the first female Cabinet Secretary in American history. As FDR’s Secretary of Labor, she was a key architect of the New Deal. This thesis tells the story of a lesser-known aspect of Perkins’s tenure as Secretary of Labor: her efforts to aid refugees from Nazi Germany. Perkins assumed her position barely a month after Adolph Hitler seized power in Germany. As applications for immigration visas surged, what became known as the German-Jewish refugee crisis ignited a cultural battle between the restrictionist Department of State and Perkins’s progressive Department of Labor. The years 1933 through 1935 featured a turf war between these Departments over the use of public charge bonds. According to an often-overlooked provision in the Immigration Act of 1917, the Secretary of Labor could accept a bond to support an immigrant who was likely to become a public charge. The Department of State opposed the use of these bonds, and a complex legal battle transpired. From 1936 through 1939, Perkins received hundreds of letters from the friends and family of refugees, beseeching her to help. This correspondence is currently housed in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Perkins extended the visitor's visas of hundreds of immigrants, including the Trapp family singers. Ultimately, however, she was unable to offer refuge to most refugees because the Department of State controlled rigid quotas and other immigration restrictions. In 1940, as President Roosevelt prepared for World War II and the presidential election of 1940, he transferred the Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. This transfer marked the end of Perkins’s chance to help refugees from Nazi Germany. I present Perkins’s role as a window into the trajectory of the 1930s refugee crisis, which tragically denied refuge to the masses of Hitler’s victims.