Now playing
01:18
Understand Trump's refugee restrictions
President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
PHOTO: Richard Drew/AP
President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Now playing
02:17
Trump claim to world leaders met with laughter
PHOTO: CNNMoney
Now playing
06:22
How Trump's tweet sparked #WhyIDidntReport
President Donald Trump points to the crowd after speaking to law enforcement officials on the street gang MS-13, Friday, July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y.
PHOTO: Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump points to the crowd after speaking to law enforcement officials on the street gang MS-13, Friday, July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y.
Now playing
01:46
Trump's I'm-joking-but-not-really strategy
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15:  U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to members of the White House Press Corps prior to his Marine One departure from the South Lawn of the White House December 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to members of the White House Press Corps prior to his Marine One departure from the South Lawn of the White House December 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:20
Trump often says he's 'the least racist person'
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:00
Trump on Manafort: I feel sad about that
PHOTO: Pool
Now playing
01:22
Trump on Cordray: He was groomed by 'Pocahontas'
Now playing
05:58
Baldwin: This face behind Trump startled me
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
02:01
Trump responds to op-ed: 'Gutless'
PHOTO: CNN Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
03:18
Why Woodward's book matters
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:13
Dean: Trump acts 'frighteningly dictatorial'
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 08:  U.S. President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room at the White House May 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. After two and a half years of negotiations, Iran agreed in 2015 to end its nuclear program in exchange for Western countries, including the United States, lifting decades of economic sanctions. Since then international inspectors have not found any violations of the terms by Iran.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 08: U.S. President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room at the White House May 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. After two and a half years of negotiations, Iran agreed in 2015 to end its nuclear program in exchange for Western countries, including the United States, lifting decades of economic sanctions. Since then international inspectors have not found any violations of the terms by Iran. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:31
Woodward book reveals 'crazytown' White House
PHOTO: CNN Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
03:03
Trump's latest Twitter tirade lashes at media
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump waits to speak during a memorial service at the Pentagon for the 9/11 terrorist attacks  September 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump waits to speak during a memorial service at the Pentagon for the 9/11 terrorist attacks September 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:57
Trump warns of violence if GOP loses midterms
PHOTO: Photo Illustration: Getty Images/CNN Business
Now playing
01:40
Trump: Impeach somebody who's done great job?
PHOTO: Fox News Channel
Now playing
01:19
Trump on Sessions: What kind of man is this?

Story highlights

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump issues an order demanding "extreme vetting" of refugees

Mark Hetfield: This is a tragic case of history repeating itself

Editor’s Note: Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump is commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day by slamming America’s door on refugees. This is a ghastly repeat of the tragic mistake America made in 1921, when President Warren Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act, severely limiting the numbers of refugees and immigrants admitted to the country.

Even at the height of Holocaust, as millions of Jews, homosexuals, political dissidents and others were exterminated, the US kept its doors shut.

The Refugee Convention of 1951 arose from the ashes of the Holocaust to ensure that never again would the world turn refugees over to their executioners. How ironically tragic that Trump has chosen to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day by once again derailing America’s commitment to refugee protection.

Mark Hetfield
PHOTO: Photographer: David Beyda 212-96
Mark Hetfield

Trump’s decision to pause an already secure program in the name of security is simply playing on public fear, vilifying refugees as dangerous just like America did in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews from Germany and Austria were deemed as “security threats.”

Unfortunately, the stakes are even higher today. There are more refugees and displaced persons in the world now than there have been at any time since the Holocaust. Over 65 million people – or one person in 113 – have fled persecution in search of safety and freedom for themselves and their families.

Forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust, this executive order will have tragic results. We must remember that refugees are feeling terror, not bringing it. We must acknowledge that the world follows America’s lead and that, if America does not stand up for refugees, very few other countries will.

The lesson here is that an international failure to welcome and protect refugees will lead to millions of vulnerable persons being trapped inside their countries of persecution, susceptible to being jailed, tortured or killed.

03:23 - Source: CNN
Khizr Khan on Trump's refugee ban

History will look back on this executive order with shame. And Americans, who with a few notable exceptions, have been so welcoming of immigrants, will look back in horror. For most of American history, the United States has been a welcoming country, and refugees have made it that much stronger. Now, this basic tenet of integration is under fierce attack.

What makes this executive order even more tragic is how unnecessary is it. Today, with greater technological tools at our disposal than at any time in history, immigrants are subject to intense scrutiny: multiple interviews, fingerprints taken, computerized and kept, and repeated security checks by numerous security and law enforcement agencies.

In other words, refugees are already thoroughly vetted but, like so much else with Donald Trump, the facts do not seem to matter. He wants “extreme vetting.”

Moreover, if America does not take refugees, who will? Last year, the United States only resettled 85,000. Many other countries host far more refugees than we do.

However, it is the way we welcome refugees – as new Americans – that has always distinguished us. This is how America credibly demonstrates to the world that refugees should be protected and welcomed. Trump is depriving America of that credibility. If America is afraid of refugees, other countries will be too. If we stop accepting refugees, other countries will stop accepting them too.

Get our free weekly newsletter

More than 1,500 rabbis from nearly every state in our great country chose this month, the month of international Holocaust remembrance, to join HIAS by signing a statement of welcome for refugees. In contrast, Trump observes Holocaust Remembrance Day by shutting America’s door to refugees. This is, as they say in Yiddish, a shanda, or embarrassment.

It is appropriate at this time to adopt the words of the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel to the refugee situation and Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan: “If America is not for itself, who will be for America? But if America is only for itself, what is America? And if not now, when?”

An America which turns away refugees is not America. We forgot that during the Holocaust. Let’s never again forget who we are.