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Ickes Holds State Department Blocks Virgin Islands Plan

December 13, 1940
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Responsibility for blocking the plan to establish a temporary refugee haven in the Virgin Islands was laid at the door of the State Department today by Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes in his first official statement regarding differences of opinion on the matter.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull, at his press conference, appeared to be taken by surprise by the Ickes statement and assured reporters that “I don’t know anything at all about it.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, member of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, conferred with Undersecretary Sumner Welles and Assistant Secretary A.A. Berle at the State Department regarding refugee problems and said later he found them completely in accord with the Administration on needs of refugees from Central Europe.

Ickes said the Interior and Justice Departments, the only agencies other than the State Department involved, were in full accord that the Virgin Islands project “can be carried out without visas, quotas or any other red tape.” He indicated he felt he had done all he could in expediting the plan and that future action depended on the State Department.

The Secretary of Interior scoffed at military objections that admission of refugees to the islands might carry the danger of admitting foreign agents to the mainland. “I don’t know how they are going to get to the United States unless they’re awfully strong swimmers,” he said, adding that under the plan worked out by the Interior Department refugees would be admitted under visitors’ permits only after being given a clean bill of health by the Justice Department.

“I’m perfectly willing to run the risk of letting in a few more German agents if in the process we can save from the firing squad and concentration camps a few of the men and women who have given so much to the cause of democracy,” he declared.

He criticized the delays in handling of the refugee problem, asserting that “people don’t seem to realize that this is not an emergency that can be met over a period of months, but has to be handled in days, even hours.”

“While we have no expectation of being able to handle more than a few hundred refugees in the islands, I think that America should do this, if for no other reason than to indicate to the world her feeling in this matter and that we still retain the status of asylum for the oppressed of which we used to be so proud,” Ickes declared.

He said that the plans called for admission of only financially independent or subsidized fugitives from Europe who were in danger of their lives and liberty, and that the number would be limited by the islands’ economy and housing facilities. He pointed out that the project was supported by the islands’ Assembly, which was cognizant of the economic benefits which would arise from the influx of refugees.

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