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Surge in Economic Refugees Will Test Community Resources

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The U.S. is on the verge of one of the largest "economic" refugee movements since the start of World War II and our nation is woefully unprepared for the fallout. As jobs wither in states like Ohio , Michigan and even tiny Rhode Island , the unemployed are packing up their families and descending on states like Texas , Oklahoma and North Dakota , where unemployment is nary a third whence they come. The fallout: cities, like Dallas or Houston, or small communities in rural Oklahoma , are and will not be able to cope with this surge of people.

In my new book, Flight From the Reich: Refugee Jews: 1933-1946, I examined the ever-dwindling choices open to those who had begun systematically to lose their jobs, homes and future hopes for education. I researched the concept of asylum and what becomes of people when they are forced to flee, whether from persecution or economic hardship, and become displaced persons trying to rebuild their lives.

I recently gave a presentation on similarities between then and now, and became increasingly intrigued by how much alike the economic refugee today in America is with his counterpart in parts of Western and Central Europe during the 1930s. While the Nazis triggered a wave of economic refugees, the practical fallout was the same. Massive movements of the unemployed looked for work. They landed in a community with the hope of a job, but nothing more. They relied on the charity of the local community until and if they could find work to support themselves. These communities were strained and in many cases unable to sustain these newcomers.

The plight of the economic refugee in America today is not so grave as in Europe in the 30s, yet the situations invite comparison. Like the German Jews forced from their jobs in the early 1930s who sought a new life, and who moved to neighbor states like France or the Netherlands, American economic refugees are forced from state to state. The fallout was and will be the breakup of strong communities and families in a state without employment prospects; the flight of more and more people; and the inability of local agencies to help newcomers who arrive in areas with fewer resources to support them until they are back up on their feet.

Deborah Dwork is the Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark University and the author of Flight From the Reich: Refugee Jews 1933-1946, published this month by W. W. Norton and Company.