Thursday, April 23, 2015

Claiming the Moral High Ground: 71 Years after it was Time to Act, Congress Passes HR 5739

On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, the House of Representatives approved a bill, HR 5739, unanimously. On Thursday, the Senate approved the same bill, unanimously. On Tuesday, December 23, the president signed the bill into law.

In an era often described as “bitterly partisan” and filled with “gridlock,” which urgent question created such bipartisan unity and occasioned such smooth functioning of the legislative process?

HR 5739 is known as the “No Social Security for Nazis Act.” It is designed to ensure that anyone who participated in Hitler’s genocide does not received retirement benefits from the United States government.

Naturally, it was passed quickly and unanimously. Who would oppose such a bill?

But there’s a problem: the new law may not affect anybody. The people to whom it might apply are probably already dead.

To have been a knowing and culpable accomplice to Hitler’s brutalities, an individual would have to be approximately 92 years of age, or older, in the year 2015. Such an individual would have reached the age of majority, 21, in 1944, and would have been born in 1923.

If we stretch it a bit, it might be possible to assign liability to someone aged 18 at the time, which would make such a person 88 years of age now.

While there are many people who are 88 or 92 years old, the percentage of them who actively engaged in atrocities and crimes against humanity is microscopic. By the government’s own estimates, there may not be any at all. The largest possible number of people to whom the law might apply is, by those same estimates, four.

Had such a law been passed ten or twenty years earlier, it might have carried numerical significance.

The Congress and the President seem to want to claim the moral high ground for this courageous piece of legislation. By the same logic, they might also choose to deny Medicaid benefits to citizens who actively supported Benedict Arnold’s defection.

CNN reports the logic of the legislative branch:

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who has been a key proponent in changing the law, told CNN that she has asked both the Justice Department and Social Security Administration to find out how much money was paid out and how many were still receiving any social security funds. She estimated there were roughly four individuals who were still eligible for the payments.
“They are dying out, but anybody who gets it is too much. They came to this country under false pretenses,” Maloney told CNN.

The rationale which Representative Maloney offers is interesting. She believes that legislative action should be taken against those who “came to this country under false pretenses.”

One might expect Rep. Maloney to oppose paying benefits to people who’d participated in grievous violations of human rights and people who’d committed mass murder. Instead she presents a justification based on immigration procedure.

If Rep. Maloney knows and understands what she says, and says what she means, then her statement would have interesting implications for immigration in other contexts. It is, however, not probable that she does.