3 minute read


Domestic Refugee Policies

In the early years of the United States, the states were responsible for the naturalization of ALIENS, and the only requirement for being naturalized was taking a pledge of loyalty. Now the federal government closely regulates the entry of all aliens, including refugees, through the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The standards for naturalization have become more demanding and exacting, especially after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Before the twentieth century, the U.S. approach to admitting refugees was no different than the admission of general immigrants, which was based on quotas for each country. During WORLD WAR II, the insensitivity of this policy became evident as the United States turned away Jewish refugees because its quota for German immigrants had been met, and the refugees were forced to return to Nazi Germany.

In 1945 President HARRY S. TRUMAN signed an EXECUTIVE ORDER that gave displaced persons, or refugees, priority over other immigrants. Congress passed the War Brides Act, 59 Stat. 659, in 1945 and the Displaced Persons Act, 62 Stat. 1009, in 1948 to make the United States more responsive to international immigration and refugee situations. The War Brides Act permitted the immigration of 120,000 alien wives and children of U.S. soldiers. The Displaced Persons Act allowed for more than the previously established quotas of refugees from Poland, Germany, Latvia, Russia, and Yugoslavia to be admitted.

The Refugee Relief Act of 1953, 67 Stat. 400, allowed for the entry of 214,000 refugees during a limited period on a non-quota basis. Many Hungarian "freedom fighters" were admitted under the act in 1956. President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER invited another 30,000 Hungarian refugees to the United States following their country's revolution. This invitation was on a "parole" status, meaning these refugees were not granted immigrant visas.

The Fair-Share Refugee Act of 1960, 74 Stat. 504, permitted the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT to admit even more refugees under PAROLE status. Under this act, many refugees from Communist and Middle Eastern countries resettled in the United States.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a flood of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came to the United States. In 1975, 200,000 Indo-Chinese refugees arrived, and by 1985 nearly 400,000 Southeast Asians came to the United States. Throughout this period, Jewish refugees from Russia continued to be admitted to the United States.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C.A. § 1525, raised the number of annual immigrants permitted from 290,000 to 320,000, of which 50,000 could be refugees. Mass admittance of refugees pursuant to the president's parole authority was not permitted, but the president was allowed to admit refugees over the 50,000 annual limit with congressional consultation.

Cuban and Haitian refugees in the early 1980s tested the ability of the United States to accommodate and assimilate refugees. The Cubans were seen as fleeing from the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and therefore were permitted entry into the United States. Flight from a Communist country was a long-standing accepted qualifying basis for refugee status. The sheer numbers of Cuban refugees who came to the United States by boat, however, made their entry difficult, but not impossible, to process.

Unlike the Cubans, the Haitian refugees claimed that they were fleeing poverty, a condition not recognized by the United States as qualifying individuals for refugee status. However, the Haitians asserted that once they left Haiti they could not return or else they would face political persecution for having left. The U.S. government did not accept the Haitians' fear of persecution as sufficient to admit them as refugees and concluded that they were economic immigrants. The Haitians were detained in large relocation camps and then deported. In 1981 President RONALD REAGAN signed an executive order authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to stop boats leaving Haiti and turn them around if they were transporting economic immigrants.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Recovered memory to RepugnancyRefugees - International Refugee Policies, Domestic Refugee Policies, Further Readings