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Milwaukee Turners Call for U.S. to Admit Refugees and Reject Fear and Isolation

Milwaukee's Turners -- founded by German refugees fleeing political repression and economic hard time in the late 1840's -- issued a statement denouncing racism and xenophobia in calls to exclude Muslim refugees from Wisconsin and called upon all Wisconsinites, including the vast majority of us who are of immigrant stock, to support humane and safe admission of our proportional share of refugees from Syria and other nations.

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Turners Hall, Milwaukee, WI, was founded in 1853 under the title, "Socialist Turnverein.",

Milwaukee’s oldest civic organization cited the early settlement of Milwaukee by refugees from Germany in support of a public statement calling on the U.S. and Wisconsin to welcome their proportional share of Syrian and other refugees. The Milwaukee Turners was founded by refugees who fled Germany after the failed democratic revolution in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state.

Noting the significant support that these German immigrants provided to the early years of the Republican party, including the election of Abraham Lincoln, the statement also briefly cites examples of fear and prejudice in the U.S. against German Americans during World War I, the denial of rights to newly freed African-Americans starting right after the Civil War, and the exclusion of Jews and other refugees from Europe during the Holocaust.

The statement contrasts the current position of Germany, which has welcomed one million refugees this year, including many highly educated Syrians, with the “the unconstitutional and xenophobic pronouncements which are being accepted as part of mainstream U.S. political dialogue.” It cites the powerless pledges of numerous governors including Wisconsin’s, to block refugees from Syria, and the fact that “multiple leading presidential candidates—not just one–have suggested a religious test” to exclude Muslims “or admit only those who can prove themselves to be Christian.”

Turner Board President Art Heitzer noted reports showing a sharp rise in attacks on Muslims in the U.S. as one reason the statement was important. “I am gratified that the Board passed this unanimously,” he added, “including our commitment to support the full civil rights of all of our neighbors.”

The statement concludes, “We call on all Wisconsinites, including the vast majority of us who are of immigrant stock, to support humane and safe admission of our proportional share of refugees from Syria and other nations. They will make our nation stronger, and to do otherwise is to play into an atmosphere of fear and isolation, and to fuel the flames of intolerance both at home and abroad.”

The full statement is below, and can also be seen at the Milwaukee Turners website, www.milwaukeeturners.org.

MILWAUKEE TURNERS SUPPORT THE U.S. DOING ITS FAIR SHARE IN WELCOMING REFUGEES

As the oldest civic organization in Milwaukee, founded by progressive German refugees escaping from repression in the late 1840’s, the Milwaukee Turners can no longer ignore the unconstitutional and xenophobic pronouncements which are being accepted as part of mainstream U.S. political dialogue.

Our founding members, along with many other German Americans, were early supporters of the Republican Party of the U.S.; they helped elect Abraham Lincoln, and pushed him towards abolition of slavery. On the landing up to our historic ballroom at Turner Hall, there is a monument to over 20 members of the Milwaukee Turners, Gentile and Jew, believers and freethinkers, who gave their lives to defend this republic and to abolish slavery once and for all. At least six American Turners served as Generals in the Union army, including Carl Schurz who later headed a commission investigating the plight of newly freed African Americans; its findings that their rights were consistently being denied in the former Confederacy was a key justification for continued U.S. military occupation as a necessity to protect the rights of all citizens under Reconstruction.

During the WWI era, U.S. citizens of all nationalities questioned that war, which led to massive attacks on our civil liberties, and even the refusal by the U.S. Congress to seat Milwaukee’s twice-elected U.S. Representative, Victor Berger. From the renaming of private clubs and foods like sauerkraut, to the suppression of multi-language education, xenophobia and hysteria dominated and distorted our popular culture.

With the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, the Milwaukee Turners opposed Nazis and their anti-Semitism, while some Americans who claimed to be more “patriotic” actively opposed allowing Jewish and other refugees from the Nazis to reach safe haven in the U.S. The passenger ship St. Louis was refused docking rights and over 200 of those would-be refugees later became victims of the Holocaust after it returned to Europe.

Today, Germany has both humanely and wisely welcomed some one million refugees in 2015. The largest number are from Syria, many of whom are highly educated and English speakers, including lawyers, doctors and scientists. Yet our governor has become one of many who claim they will stop even 20,000 refugees from entering the U.S., though they lack legal authority to do so. Multiple leading presidential candidates—not just one–have suggested a religious test, either to block all Muslim refugees and visitors, or admit only those who can prove themselves to be Christian.

These positions are both dangerous and repugnant to what America is supposed to stand for. We are committed to supporting the full civil rights of all of our neighbors, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Christian or other believers and nonbelievers. We call on all Wisconsinites, including the vast majority of us who are of immigrant stock, to support humane and safe admission of our proportional share of refugees from Syria and other nations. They will make our nation stronger, and to do otherwise is to play into an atmosphere of fear and isolation, and to fuel the flames of intolerance both at home and abroad.

Unanimously approved by the Board on December 21, 2015