How’d We Get Here? A History of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S.

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Protesters gathered at Los Angeles International Airport to demonstrate against President Trump's executive order effectively banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. (KONRAD FIEDLER/AFP/Getty Images)

This post consists of a condensed interview with Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. The MPI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.

The End of World War II

The end of World War II was a turning point. Attitudes in Congress and the FDR administration had been hostile during the war to refugees. For example, Congress defeated a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the country in 1939. And then there was the uproar over the St. Louis, a German ship full of Jewish refugees, being turned away from Cuba. The U.S. also refused to help, and some of those refugees died in the Nazi concentration camps in Europe.

Refugees from Nazi Germany on board the St. Louis en route to Cuba. The passengers were denied entry into Cuba and the U.S., and were forced to return to Europe. Some of them died in Nazi camps.
Refugees from Nazi Germany on board the St. Louis en route to Cuba. The passengers were denied entry into Cuba and the U.S., and were forced to return to Europe. Some of them died in Nazi camps. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

After the war, changes in U.S. refugee policy weren't so much about guilt over the Holocaust or a sense of obligation, but rather the growing geopolitical concern about the stability of post-war Europe, which at the end of World War II had 20 million to 30 million displaced people.

Even more significant was the emergence of the Cold War. For the U.S. at that time, the working definition of "refugee" was someone fleeing from a Communist or a Communist-dominated country -- and anyone who did that was a propaganda victory for the West.

The U.S. was initially resistant to admitting displaced persons. Then, between 1945 and 1950,  350,000 people from Europe were admitted to the U.S. In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which somewhat formalized the admissions that were already ongoing and provided some funding for resettlement.

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Still, the U.S. had "national origin" quotas in its immigration laws, which meant tension between Congress and the executive branch about admitting Jews and Eastern Europeans. Congress didn’t want them, and the McCarren-Walter Act of 1952 got rid of racial quotas but kept the national original quotas, which discriminated against pretty much all Catholics, Eastern Europeans and Asians. The Act is still in effect, but was amended in 1965 and 1990.

Displaced persons line the decks of the General Black as it leaves the port of Bremerhaven. Dubbed the "Ship to Freedom" by its passengers, it brought 813 European displaced persons from 11 nations to the United States under the provisions of the newly enacted Displaced Persons' Act.
Displaced persons line the decks of the General Black as it leaves the port of Bremerhaven. Dubbed the "Ship to Freedom" by its passengers, it brought 813 European displaced persons from 11 nations to the United States under the provisions of the newly enacted Displaced Persons' Act. (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

There was still a lot of pressure to find other ways to admit refugees. In 1953, Congress passed what they hoped was a one-off law: the Refugee Relief Act. It allowed 209,000 special immigrant visas to be given to Europeans. But the U.S. refugee policy was still quite ad hoc, and it wasn’t until the 1956 uprising in Hungary that there was a recognition and expectation that people who were fleeing from Communism would need to be accommodated as refugees.

At this time, the decision making was still very much in the executive branch. The U.S. attorney general would use his executive “parole” authority to admit people into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds or as a matter of national interest, without those people having to demonstrate any other qualifications for regular immigration.

For example, Under President Eisenhower, 38,000 Hungarians were paroled into the U.S. Similarly, during and after the revolution in Cuba, 125,000 Cubans simply arrived spontaneously in the U.S. and the executive branch tolerated it. Some Cubans had permanent visas, more had temporary visas, but when they expired, they were just allowed to stay. Those who had no visa at all were tolerated or ignored.

The Vietnam War

In 1968, the U.S. signed the U.N.'s 1951 Refugee Convention. In doing so the U.S. accepted the convention's definition of the term "refugee," but it still set its own policy on admitting them.

When Saigon fell in 1975, the U.S. military evacuated vulnerable Vietnamese civilians, eventually allowing 130,000 Vietnamese to resettle here. Congress also passed the Indochina Refugee and Assistance Act. That provided some financing, but the attorney general still had to “parole” them in.

Then, the refugee numbers went down dramatically after 1975, until the Vietnamese Boat People crisis.

Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard a U.S. ship as they're rescued from a 35-foot fishing boat after spending eight days at sea in 1984.
Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard a U.S. ship as they're rescued from a 35-foot fishing boat after spending eight days at sea in 1984. (Wikimedia Commons)

Refugees fleeing Indochina on rickety boats were seeking refuge in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, among others -- and those countries were overwhelmed and unwilling to accept them. By 1978 those countries were pushing refugees back, and people were drowning or getting attacked by pirates. There was media coverage and international outcry. The next year, 1979, 111,000 refugees came to the U.S.

Establishing a Refugee Cap

Finally, Congress faced the reality that there needed to be something more concrete to set policy. It passed the Refugee Act of 1980, establishing a procedure for the president to establish a “ceiling” or “target” for refugee admissions and resettlement in U.S. The president would consult with Congress, but still held the authority to establish the annual number or cap. And sometimes Congress would even push that number higher than the presidential request.

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In 1980, there were 207,000 arrivals in one year. That was the peak year for U.S. refugee admissions -- the number hasn’t been exceeded since.

Having a firm policy helped the system become a lot more organized. Now there was federal funding, and agencies -- some of them faith-based -- were designated to coordinate local reception and resettling. Things settled down. Refugee numbers from 1983 to 1989 were about 60-70,000 a year.

Then after 1989, there were the Balkan wars, and other regional conflicts that bumped the numbers up over 100,000 annually. In 1992, it reached 132,000, then drifted down again.

Post-Sept. 11

After 9/11, there was a dramatic drop-off in refugee admissions. The Bush administration suspended the whole refugee program for two months, but there was little public controversy.

That's because a lot of refugees were coming from Somalia, Afghanistan and other countries with an al-Qaeda presence. Still, none of the 9/11 hijackers were refugees. Fourteen were on six-month tourist visas, four had a business visa and one had a student visa.

After the 9/11 suspension, new security protocols were put in place for the refugee program. And it was hard to get in for a while. But then it recovered, admissions got back up to about 40,000 to 50,000. President Obama started raising the cap, first to 70,000 and then to 85,000. By the time he left office, he had set it at 110,000.

So why has there been such an outcry to President Trump’s executive order, compared to the temporary suspension after 9/11?

The difference is that Trump lowered the cap. There was no lowering of the cap post-9/11 -- it was just a two-month suspension of arrivals.

Trump lowered it from 110,000 to 50,000 for this fiscal year. And as of Jan. 27, when he made his announcement, 32,000 refugees had already arrived. So there’s only room now for 18,000 more before Oct.1. And right now there are close to 70,000 in the pipeline for U.S. resettlement. They’ve essentially been accepted, but they're still being screened. So about 50,000 refugees who thought they were going to be moving to U.S. this year will not be.