Frances C. Perkins (1880-1965), the first woman to serve in an American president’s cabinet, was one of the few cabinet members who sought to promote the rescue of Jews from Nazi Germany. Perkins, who had served as Commissioner of Labor in New York state when Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor, was appointed Secretary of Labor in March 1933, shortly after FDR entered the White House.
As early as April 1933, Perkins proposed in a cabinet meeting that the president should cancel the Hoover administration’s instruction to U.S. consuls to reject visa applications from anyone they deemed “likely to become a public charge.” When that proposal was rebuffed, Perkins began pressing for permitting American citizens to post a bond in place of other financial guarantees for would-be immigrants. That triggered a clash with the State Department, which was finally resolved in December 1933 when the attorney general issued an opinion in favor of the Labor Department’s position.
In practice, however, the bond procedure was never widely used, in part because Immigration Commissioner Daniel McCormack, and even some Labor Department officials, were not enthusiastic about the idea and refrained from pushing ahead with it. As a result, consuls in Europe continued to follow the strict existing procedures.
Throughout the 1930s, Perkins continued to seek ways to increase the number of Jewish refugees admitted to the United States. Among other things, she advocated granting visitors’ visas to refugees and extending the visa of those who were already in the United States as visitors. The latter idea was adopted by President Roosevelt on once occasion, when he extended the visas of about 5,000 German Jews in the U.S. in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom. Perkins also pressed for the admission of German Jewish refugee children, although interference by the State Department and ultimately limited the number of children who were admitted to about four hundred.
Sources: Zucker, Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940, pp.40-43, 48-56;
Wyman, Paper Walls, pp.12-13.