Refugee Policies

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Editors: Richard Dean Burns , Alexander DeConde , and Fredrik Logevall
Date: 2002
Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 357


Refugee Policies

David M. Reimers

According to the 1951 Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted in his country of origin for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." The U.S. Senate accepted this definition sixteen years later, but it was not officially made part of immigration law until the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. From 1789 to 1875 the states controlled immigration policy and admitted refugees, but they did not label them as such. From 1875 to the 1940s the federal government continued this policy. During the early years of the Cold War, refugees were generally defined as persons fleeing communism.

In admitting refugees, foreign policy has often played a key role, but it has not been the only factor. Economic conditions in the United States have helped determine how generous the nation would be in accepting refugees. Lobbying by particular ethnic, nationality, and religious groups also has influenced refugee flows. Finally, Americans liked to think of the nation as, in George Washington's words, an "asylum for mankind." This humanitarian impulse often dovetailed with foreign policy as the United States wanted to appear generous to other nations. It is also important to realize that many refugees also have economic motives for wanting to escape their home countries and seek their fortunes in the United States. Indeed, the line between "a well-founded fear" and the desire for an improved lifestyle is often blurred.


The American colonies had little control over the admission of newcomers; they could not even halt the English practice of sending convicts to the New World. Americans began to shape their own destinies after 1789 when the nation's Constitution went into effect. That document said nothing about refugees, or immigrants for that matter. Moreover, the federal government did not begin to regulate the flow of newcomers until 1875. Three events and subsequent flows of migrants to the United States emerged in the 1790s. First was the French Revolution (1789), second, the Haitian Revolution (1791), and third, the failure of the United Irishmen to win independence for Ireland in the 1790s.

The first test of the nation's policy occurred when French émigrés, fleeing the increasing violence of the French Revolution, began to come to America. Those arriving in the fall of 1789 were mostly of the elite classes who witnessed the collapse of the old regime and who feared that their wealth, status, and privileged positions were under siege. Their numbers were small by comparison to those who followed. The second wave consisted of patriotic and intellectual nobles and the middle classes who had supported them. These refugees, who had backed liberal reform, watched with dismay as the French Revolution turned radical and violent. A few priests who opposed the confiscation of their lands and secularization of the revolution joined them, as did some members of the military who did not favor the ideals of the French Revolution. Numbers are not precise, but between ten and fifteen thousand crossed the Atlantic. They settled in Atlantic coastal towns and cities, with Philadelphia receiving the largest number.

Americans, including George Washington and the ruling Federalist Party, were supportive of the revolution in its first days. The Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to Washington, but as bloodshed increased, many Americans turned against the revolution. The Federalists especially were shocked by the growing violence. When war broke out between England and France, the Jeffersonian Republicans supported France and the Federalists England. Yet neitherPage 358  |  Top of Article party wished to go to war, and the government's policy of neutrality was widely accepted. The cities and states where the refugees settled raised money to aid them, many of whom had brought little money and few possessions with them. In other cases, individuals and voluntary groups assisted in finding employment. The refugees themselves raised funds and even published several newspapers. The French minister Edmond-Charles Genet was not sympathetic to the refugees, especially those who seemed to favor England over revolutionary France. When he tried to influence American politics, he won little favor and was recalled to France. Yet the intrigues of a French minister and the radicalization of the revolution in France did not change the official neutrality of the United States, and émigrés were still permitted to enter even though the two political parties differed over aspects of exile culture and politics. However, as conditions changed in France some of the refugees returned.

Closely allied to the events in France was the slave uprising in St. Domingue (Haiti) in the 1790s. The revolt erupted in 1791, three years before revolutionary France outlawed slavery. After thirteen years of civil war, Haiti achieved independence in 1804 and became the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere. Initially, the United States supported white planters' efforts to put down the revolt, but the French were ultimately unsuccessful. After 1791, as the white planters witnessed losses of their estates and power and increasing violence, they fled—a few to France, some to Cuba and Jamaica, and others to the United States. These refugees differed from those from France proper. To be sure, the elite planters held political views similar to the elite of France, but the refugees were not limited to the white elite; only a minority of the newcomers were white. Some planters carried their slaves with them. These slaves remained slaves whether they were brought to slaveholding states or even if they were brought to northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York, for the northern states were just beginning to end slavery in the 1790s. In addition, "free people of color"—a mixed-race group in Haiti who were not equal to whites in law but who were free and often skilled workers—believed that they would not prosper in a successful slave rebellion and fled too.

The slave revolt posed the question of whether Americans should receive another influx of refugees and how the United States should respond diplomatically if the uprising succeeded. The white Haitians were welcomed especially by American slaveholders who sympathized with the principle and reality of slavery. Some others believed the nation should receive the refugees because it would maintain the principle of America as an "asylum for mankind." The refugees settled in coastal cities, with New Orleans the center of their community. That city did not become part of the United States until after the Louisiana Purchase, but even then it continued to receive refugees when many of the St. Domingue exiles who at first went to Cuba were forced by the Spanish to settle elsewhere in 1809.

Like those fleeing France, many of these exiles brought few possessions and little money with them. Funds were raised by cities, states, and community groups to assist them. An official position was taken by the U.S. Congress when it appropriated $15,000 to assist the refugees and suspended duties on French ships arriving in American ports if they were carrying exiles.

While welcoming St. Domingue's planters, slaveholders grew alarmed that so many slaves and free people of color entered. They feared that persons from these two groups were too familiar with events in Haiti and might attempt to stir up opposition to slavery in the United States. To white southerners a black-ruled Haiti was a symbol of decadence and ruin. Moreover, they were alarmed by the rise of antislavery sentiment and groups in the North. Faced with these perceived threats, the southern states tightened restrictions on slavery. Several banned the importing of slaves from the Caribbean, but the federal government did not outlaw the international slave trade until 1808 as it was required to do by the Constitution. In 1861 the United States finally recognized the black republic and established diplomatic relations.

The third revolution of the 1790s was a failed one, but it sent refugees to the United States and prompted a debate about foreign policy and immigration. The Society of United Irishmen, composed of both Catholics and Protestants, sought to end English control of Ireland. However, Ireland did not win its freedom; England crushed the rebels, tried and sentenced some leaders to jail, and encouraged others to leave. England also passed the Act of Union in 1800, which merged the mother country with Ireland and divided the Protestant-Catholic alliance. The failure to win Irish independence led thousands of Irish refugees to immigrate to America in the next one hundred years.

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The Jeffersonian Republicans generally sympathized with the rebels, but the Federalists wanted to align American foreign policy with that of Great Britain against France. Many Federalists also believed the Irish were a "wild horde" and were none too eager to see them settling in American coastal towns and cities. The Irish refugees in turn sided with the Jefferson party. As a result, the Federalists succeeded in raising the number of resident years needed for naturalization from two to fourteen. Some Republicans joined the Federalists in raising the time required for naturalization because they believed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which set two years as the required period, did not provide enough time for newcomers to be indoctrinated in the principles of republicanism. Congress also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, one of which gave the president power to deport immigrants even in peacetime if they were considered dangerous. President John Adams did not exercise this provision, but the Sedition Act did lead to several newspaper editors being arrested and sent to jail, including the Irish-born Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont.

One wing of the Federalist Party favored war against France and alliance with England. But while fighting an undeclared war against France in the last few years of the 1790s, President Adams blocked efforts for a declaration of war, and the crisis passed. With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, the naturalization period dropped from fourteen to five years, where it has remained ever since. The Alien and Sedition Acts were also allowed to lapse.


The crisis of the 1790s set the tone for the next century. The United States would proclaim neutrality but permit refugees from foreign lands undergoing war or revolution to settle in the United States. In the 1820s, when the Greeks revolted against Turkish rule over Greece, most Americans sympathized with the Greek cause, and they willingly received a few Greek refugees in the United States. However, the official position of the United States was the new Monroe Doctrine (1823). President James Monroe declared that he expected European powers to refrain from ventures in the Western Hemisphere and not attempt to halt the revolutionary process there, and in return the United States would stay out of European affairs.

In 1831, Poles sought to overthrow Russian domination of their land. After exchanges of notes between the United States and Russia, the former remained neutral in the dispute and both powers agreed to a commercial treaty in 1833. However, important American citizens expressed their sympathy with the Poles and warmly welcomed several hundred Polish exiles who fled when the rebellion failed and raised money to assist in their settlement. Some Poles wanted Congress to grant them a tract of land in the West that was to become a new Poland in America. The legislators, while willing to permit the refugees to obtain land on the same terms as all others, rejected the scheme.

Revolutions broke out once more in Europe in 1848, and when they failed, thousands of refugees, chiefly Germans, fled to the United States. Once again, many Americans hailed the principles of the "forty-eighters" in their quest for constitutional government in their homelands, but officially the United States government elected to pursue a policy of neutrality. No case represents this position more than that of Hungarian Lajos Kossuth. While American officials proclaimed to the Austrians that they favored the principles ofPage 360  |  Top of Article liberty anywhere, and sympathized with those Hungarians seeking independence from Austria, the United States did not intervene in the affairs of Hungary and Austria. When the Hungarian leader Kossuth arrived in the United States in 1852, he drew large crowds, but there was no chance that America would intervene in European affairs.

When the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, called the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, launched two attacks on Canada from the United States in 1866 and 1870, America was faced with a diplomatic crisis or embarrassment. As much as many Americans opposed English rule in Ireland, the government moved to halt these assaults, which seemed to many to have the flavor of a comic opera. Moreover, the United States was at peace with Great Britain, and American officials said that the Irish question was Britain's affair, not that of the United States.

In Latin America the United States pursued a different policy. Americans sympathized with the Cuban revolt against Spain that began in 1868 and lasted until the Spanish-American War (1898) ended Spanish rule. In the early years of the rebellion, when conditions deteriorated for the rebels, many sought asylum in the United States, where they settled in New York and Florida and began to organize again to overthrow Spanish control. American politicians demanded that Spain grant Cubans their independence. Relations between the United States and Spain deteriorated in the 1890s, and when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana's harbor, the cries for action led to a congressional declaration of war in 1898. As a result of the ensuing Spanish-American War, Cuba received independence but found itself closely tied to America.


The federal government finally took control of immigration in 1875 when it banned prostitutes from entering the United States, as well as convicted felons and Asians said to be "coolies." Coolies were defined as Asians brought into the United States without their consent. Seven years later, Congress barred Chinese immigrants, but not dissenters of one kind or another from Europe. After President William McKinley was assassinated by an American-born anarchist in 1901, Congress passed the first law barring immigrants because of their political beliefs when it restricted anarchists from coming to the United States.

Various ethnic groups put pressure on the federal government to take an active role in aiding their people in their homelands, either by admitting refugees or by condemning the oppression faced by their countrymen. Armenian groups periodically attacked the government of Turkey for fostering massacres of Armenians under Turkish rule, especially the particularly violent one in 1915. In a similar manner, American Jews attacked Russia for permitting and even fostering pogroms. German Jews organized the American Jewish Committee in 1906 in order to influence the U.S. government to put pressure on Russia to end such violence and to assist Jewish immigrants. These efforts by various groups had only limited success until 1945, but they did foster aid to fellow ethnics in their homelands.

During and after World War I, which witnessed the communist seizure of power in Russia, some European refugees considered too radical and sympathetic to communism found themselves unwanted. Raids carried out by the federal government, peaking in 1920, led to thousands of arrests and deportation of foreign-born immigrants. In addition to shipping some radicals to Russia, the federal government refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933.

With the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and Adolf Hitler's winning power in Germany in 1933, a new crisis of refugees loomed. As nazism spread, thousands of Jews and political dissenters searched for a haven outside Germany. Many fled to neighboring countries, but as the German army overran those nations, to emigrate was under-standable, but getting into the United States was difficult. High unemployment tempered the desire to immigrate to America, and if they did want to come, the "likely to be a public charge" provision of the immigration laws was strictly enforced during the early days of the Great Depression. Moreover, the national origins quotas established during the 1920s limited the number of Europeans who would come.

Groups working to aid immigrants did suggest that the nation open its doors, but Congress was in no mood to change laws, and public opinion polls indicated strong opposition to admit many immigrants. In the depression years and during World War II, advocates of a tight immigration policy, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, even suggested that all immigration be halted. The Roosevelt administration did ease its restrictions in 1938 but then tightly enforced the rules againPage 361  |  Top of Article in 1939. With nearly a quarter of the labor force unemployed during the worst years of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration was reluctant to embark upon a liberal policy for refugees. Because many of those trying to leave were Jews, anti-Semitism also played an important role. President Franklin Roosevelt denounced the atrocities in Germany, but the plight of refugees did not prompt the administration to change immigration policy. Several hundred thousand refugees did manage to come to the United States during the 1930s, but overall only one half million immigrants were admitted, a figure considerably less than admitted during a single year between 1900 and 1914.

Fewer people arrived during World War II when shipping was disrupted. Roosevelt and his cabinet and other government officials were informed about the Holocaust by reports from Europe relayed to Washington by Jewish organizations, but the administration insisted that defeating Germany quickly was the best way to bring the Holocaust to an end. As more news about the Holocaust reached Washington, the president expressed concern and other officials hinted that refugees be allowed to come to America. In June 1944, President Roosevelt admitted 1,000 persons who were living in North African internment camps to a temporary refuge shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. The president's action was meant to provide an emergency home for these refugees, but they were eventually allowed to stay.


It was after World War II that the United States finally recognized refugees in law, with foreign policy playing a key role in the emerging legislation and executive action, especially the Cold War between the United States and Russia. It is also important to note that American refugee policy was not limited to the admission of immigrants. During the 1930s a number of organizations, operating in an international arena, were formed to deal with the European crisis, but they had little impact. These groups continued to function in the postwar decades. Moreover, the newly formed United Nations also played a growing role in settling refugees. Building upon the work of the League of Nations, the United Nations emerged as the most important international agency coping with refugees when it created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and adopted the Convention on Refugees in 1951. The United States supported the UNHCR financially and eventually accepted the convention's statement as its own. While more than three million refugees settled in the United States from 1945 to 2000, American support of the UNHCR was based on the belief that most refugees wanted to return home when conditions permitted and not necessarily immigrate to the United States.

The sweep of the Allies across Europe in 1944 and 1945 made possible a huge population movement as persons enslaved in Germany attempted to go home, as ethnic Germans were forcibly removed from nations where they had lived, and as millions who had seen their villages and cities destroyed sought refuge. The liberation of Jews from the concentration camps also left these survivors homeless, and most were in poor health. Other persons fled the approaching Russian army and ended up in the Western powers' territory. Many of these unfortunate people found themselves housed in displaced persons camps.

On 22 December 1945, President Harry S. Truman directed that 40,000 refugees be admitted and charged against national origins quotas, in the future if necessary. Truman's action was only a first step in dealing with the postwar refugees, and it hardly scratched the surface. American authorities and their European allies realized that the refugee situation had to be resolved if thePage 362  |  Top of Article economies and societies of western Europe were to be rebuilt. And as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated, American leaders also developed other programs to bolster their allies. These included the Truman Doctrine of aid to Turkey and Greece in combating communism (1946), the Marshall Plan for stimulating the economies of western Europe (1948), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) for its collective security. Congress barred communist immigrants from coming to America and voted to admit others by passing the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. As amended in 1950, the measure eventually permitted roughly 400,000 persons to immigrate to the United States, which relieved the western Europeans of some of their financial and population burdens.

While the immediate crisis in western Europe eased, there still remained people without homes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Congress for a law to admit additional refugees, and the legislators responded with the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 that admitted another 189,000 persons. The measure also included a few thousand Palestinians from the Middle East and 5,000 Asians. This marked the first time that the term "refugee" appeared in U.S. law. Subsequent legislation in the 1950s admitted other persons fleeing communist nations and the Middle East. Most Middle Easterners came under regular immigration laws, even though many were stateless or fleeing from violence. It is not known how many were Palestinians because many entered as immigrants from Jordan or other nations.

The emerging Cold War refugee policy faced another test when the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 failed. Some 180,000 Hungarian "freedom fighters," as they were called, fled to Austria before the Austrians closed the border. The Austrian government was willing to temporarily aid them but wanted the Western powers to provide for their permanent settlement. The Hungarian quota allowed for only 865 immigrants, but President Eisenhower established a precedent that evoked the "parole" power of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 to admit nearly 40,000 refugees. Being classified as "parolees" left them in limbo because parolees could remain in the United States but were not permanent resident aliens (immigrants) or refugees. Congress had to pass legislation to permit them to change their status. Because this provision had been intended for individual cases, some in Congress protested. In the Cold War climate of the 1950s, however, the desire to strike a blow against communism and aid these anticommunists overcame congressional qualms, and the lawmakers passed the Hungarian Escape Act of 1958 to grant the Hungarians refugee status.

The ad hoc nature of refugee admissions bothered some legislators, and when Congress revamped the national origins system in 1965 they provided for a more organized policy. The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 created seven preferences for the Eastern Hemisphere, mostly based on family unification. However, the seventh preference set aside 10,200 places for refugees, defined as persons fleeing communist or communist-dominated nations or the Middle East. Under this provision several thousand Czechoslovakian refugees came to the United States when the Soviet Union and its allies crushed the "Prague Spring" rebellion in 1968. Thousands of Soviet Jews also entered under the new laws. The president was also given the power to admit refugees from a "natural calamity." The last part of the definition was meant to be humanitarian. For example, some refugees had come in the 1950s following an earthquake in the Azores. Originally, the new system covered only the Eastern Hemisphere, but when a uniform worldwide system was created in 1978, the seventh preference increased to 17,400.

Thousands of Soviet Union Jews also entered under the new laws, but Jewish immigration became a foreign policy matter when Congress put in place trade restrictions against the Soviets. A bill sponsored by Senator Henry Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik passed in late 1974 and was signed by President Gerald Ford in early 1975. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to a trade bill made future trade and credit policies tied to Jewish immigration. The Soviets responded by severely curtailing Jewish emigration and thereby cutting trade with the United States. Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union had to wait until the end of the 1980s for a major increase.

The Cold War was by no means limited to Europe. In Asia the United States intervened in the Korean War (1950–1953) and again in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 and embarked upon a policy making it a communist country. These wars, along with Castro's victory, led to another wave of refugees. Shortly after Castro won control, some elite Cubans fled to Miami. As the flow grew, PresidentsPage 363  |  Top of Article Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson used the parole power to admit them. From 1959 to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, more than 200,000 arrived. Flights were suspended after the missile crisis, although some escaped by boat to Florida. In early 1965 Castro indicated that he was interested in renewing the exodus, and when President Johnson signed the new immigration act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in October, he said that the United States was willing to accept all who desired to leave Castro's communist state. American policymakers believed that accepting refugees would demonstrate the failure of communism in Cuba and also be a humanitarian gesture. Once again the president paroled them. In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act that assumed that any Cuban to reach American soil was a refugee from communism and was welcome in the United States. Several hundred thousand Cubans took advantage of the new law, but the flow slowed to a trickle in the early 1970s. In addition, the federal government provided aid for these newcomers, which marked the first time after World War II that the government gave monetary assistance for refugee resettlement.

Another wave from Cuba entered in the spring of 1980. They sailed from the Cuban port of Mariel and were thus called "Marielitos." The Marielitos were picked up by boats operated by Cubans already in the United States, and by the time the U.S. government halted the exodus, about 130,000 had arrived. President Jimmy Carter did not use immigration laws to admit them; he created a new classification called "conditional entrants," a limbo status. Eventually, they were permitted to change their status under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The entire episode made it seem that immigration policy was out of control, especially in view of the fact that Castro dumped criminals and mental patients into the boats heading for America.

As Cuban emigration slackened, that of Southeast Asia began. The Vietnam War uprooted tens of thousands of Vietnamese, many of whom left rural areas for cities. The U.S. government aided these persons in settling in their new homes in Vietnam, but officials had no thought of bringing them to America. Then came the 1975 collapse of the American-backed regime in Vietnam. As Saigon was besieged and conquered by communist forces, tens of thousands of Vietnamese were rescued by helicopters and thousands more fled by boat. Roughly 130,000 came in this first wave of 1975. They were brought to the United States for resettlement. In view of the American military role in Vietnam, U.S. officials believed that the United States had to accept them. In 1978 and 1979 Vietnam's ethnic Chinese also fled, largely by boat, which earned them the name "boat people." Moreover, conditions in Cambodia and Laos deteriorated, which prompted many to cross the Thailand border for the safety of refugee camps supported by the United States and the United Nations. The total from 1975 to 1980 vastly exceeded the 17,400 slots provided annually for refugees. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter paroled them into the United States, and Congress provided funds for their settlement and allowed them to become refugees.

It seemed to many that refugee policy, other than aiding those fleeing from communism, still lacked coherence. In 1980, Congress passed a new law, the Refugee Act of 1980. It increased the annual "normal flow" of refugees to 50,000 and established and funded programs to assist them. In addition, it dropped the anticommunist definition of "refugee" and substituted for it the United Nations statement. While the law said 50,000 refugees were the "normal flow" to be admitted annually, the president retained the power to permit more to arrive, and in no year after 1980 did the number drop as low as 50,000; it usually averaged twice that figure. More than one million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians alone came to the United States from 1975 to the 1990s.

Cubans and Southeast Asians were the main beneficiaries of American foreign and refugee polices, but others also managed to become refugees. When the anticommunist Polish Solidarity movement sputtered in the early 1980s, Poles in the United States were permitted to remain temporarily and eventually to become refugees. It was a common practice to permit citizens of another nation visiting or studying here to win a temporary reprieve from returning home when their visas expired if their country suddenly experienced violence. Eventually, like the Poles, many were able to stay permanently in the United States.

The Cold War mentality was clearly evident when citizens of countries who were not fleeing communist regimes tried to win refugee status. After the successful 1973 revolt against the socialist government of Chile led to the execution and internment of thousands of Chileans, the United States took in fewer than 1,700 Chilean refugees. Since the United States had opposed the socialists and had been involvedPage 364  |  Top of Article with the revolt, the American acceptance of so few refugees is understandable.

The government's position on communism and the admission of refugees also explain why so few refugees were admitted from Haiti. The dictatorial regime there run by the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986 supported American positions taken on Western Hemisphere affairs and the Cold War, which pleased the State Department. There is no doubt that Haitians lived under oppressive rule, but there is also no doubt that Haiti was one of the poorest nations in the world. Immigration officials stressed the poverty of potential immigrants, not their lack of political rights and the violence conducted by authorities. Consequently, few immigrants were granted refugee status from Haiti. During the Mariel Cuban crisis, thousands of Haitians also made it by boat to Florida. They were included in President Carter's "entrant" category, but their status remained in limbo until the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) granted amnesty to those in the United States before 1982.

The IRCA did not mean a new policy for Haitians coming after 1982. The immigration authorities and the State Department continued to call them economic migrants. Federal officials insisted that if Haitians were considered refugees, a tide of boat people would head for America. After the end of Duvalier rule, a democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took power. When the Haitian military overthrew the regime of Aristide in 1991, the boat exodus picked up again. Under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard seized boats trying to escape from Haiti to Florida and sent them back to Haiti or temporarily housed them at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba, where their claims could be processed. Bill Clinton had criticized the policy of President Bush, but he continued it when he became president in 1993. Moreover, the fear of Haitians fleeing the military regime and flocking to America, without proper documents and claiming asylum, motivated President Clinton to order an invasion of Haiti in the fall of 1994 to restore democracy. Among other reasons, the president repeated the belief that if democracy were not restored to Haiti, tens of thousands would try to come to America.

A similar situation prevailed in Guatemala and El Salvador and to a lesser extent in Honduras. These nations lived under right-wing and dictatorial governments recognized and supported by the United States and were plagued by civil wars. Many Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans claimed that they should be considered refugees, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) insisted that, like Haitians, they were economic migrants and not legitimate refugees fearing persecution. Nor did the INS believe that the fear of being killed in a civil war was sufficient for winning refugee status; hence, few managed to emigrate as refugees.

In Nicaragua a different situation prevailed. There, the left-wing movement, the Sandinistas, overthrew the dictatorial rule of the Somoza family. The Carter administration attempted to work with the new government, but under Ronald Reagan the Central Intelligence Agency armed so-called contra forces that crossed Nicaragua's border in guerrilla raids attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas. Yet Nicaraguans fleeing to the United States also had difficulty emigrating as refugees.

There was another way to become a refugee, an immigrant, and eventually a U.S. citizen. According to immigration law, if a migrant was on American soil, even if one had entered illegally, one could claim asylum, arguing that the applicant had a "well founded fear" of persecution if returned home. Only two thousand or so persons won asylum annually in the 1970s. For example, the government denied asylum to most of the Haitian boat people during the 1970s and deported them. After the 1980 refugee act incorporated the new UN definition of refugee status in place of the anticommunist one, and when the civil wars in Central America escalated, the number applying for asylum skyrocketed. More than 140,000 applied in 1995, for example, and by the end of the 1990s the backlog reached several hundred thousand. Haitians came by boat, but tens of thousands of Central Americans illegally crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico. The State Department and the INS insisted they were mostly illegal immigrants who should be deported. INS officials in Florida did modify policy slightly toward Nicaraguans. An official said that he could not deny asylum to Nicaraguans when the United States insisted that the government of that country was undemocratic and that the CIA-backed contras were trying to overthrow it. Nicaraguans still had difficulty in winning asylum status, but their approval rate was more than double that of their neighbors. In 1989, for example, 5,092 Nicaraguans won asylum, compared with 102 Guatemalans and 443 Salvadorans.

Friends of these contestants for asylum insisted that a double standard was being applied:Page 365  |  Top of Article Cubans merely had to get to the United States, but Central Americans had to win their claims on an individual basis. Many undocumented immigrant Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans did adjust their status due to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. As noted, the law covered those in the United States before 1982, but for others fleeing violence in Central America after that date individual asylum was required, which was even more difficult to demonstrate when the civil wars in Central America ended in the early 1990s. Fewer than 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were granted asylum in 1999—up slightly from the rate of the 1980s but less than half of the general approval rate. Those who came after the IRCA amnesty were left in limbo, although minor modifications in immigration policy did permit some to remain. Moreover, once these Central Americans won asylum, they were eligible to adjust their status to that of regular immigrants and could then use the family preference system to sponsor their relatives. For example, in 1996 Haitian immigrants numbered 18,386, with 8,952 of these under the family preference system and another 4,815 coming as immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were exempt from the quotas. Comparable figures for Salvadorans were 17,903; 8,959; and 5,519. Data for Hondurans and Guatemalans were similar. The United States did permit Salvadorans and Hondurans the right to stay temporarily in the United States when earthquakes and hurricanes struck in the 1990s. These temporary stays, called temporary protected status (TPS), were not asylum; when TPS ended, the undocumented aliens were expected to go home.

Although during the Cold War the United States clearly favored persons fleeing communism, it also accepted those seeking refuge from other oppressive regimes. The United States accepted more than 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded in 1979, but after the Soviets left and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban took control of the nation in the 1990s, the United States still accepted some Afghan refugees, numbering about 2,000 annually.

American relations with Iran changed dramatically when another Islamic movement overthrew the American-backed shah of Iran in 1979. U.S. policy was aimed at keeping Iran's oil flowing to the West and at using the shah's government as a buffer against Soviet expansion. Anti-shah Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and imprisoned fifty-three Americans for more than a year. They were released at the same time that Ronald Reagan replaced Carter as president. Clearly, the United States could not oppose this new government holding American employees and at the same time deny refugee status or asylum to those Iranians already in the United States who did not want to return to Iran. In the 1980s, 46,773 persons from Iran arrived as refugees or recipients of asylum. Over 60 percent of those applying for asylum won it, which was among the highest rates of acceptance of any group.


The end of the Cold War in Europe in 1989 changed the nature of refugee policy, but it was still closely tied to foreign affairs, if not to the Cold War's anticommunism. The United States gave asylum to Chinese dissidents, the largest single group being Chinese students in the United States when the pro-democracy demonstrators were violently repressed in China in 1989. When the movement collapsed in bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, President George H. W. Bush granted the students the right to remain in the United States on a temporary basis. The students' allies pointed out that because some of the students had been outspoken in their opposition to the Chinese government, they faced persecution at home. Congress later made them refugees; they did not have to prove on an individual basis that they qualified under the principles of the 1980 immigration act.

In 1996 Congress also provided 1,000 asylum places for Chinese who opposed the one-child-per-family policy of the Chinese government. There had been precedent for this political decision. When the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with 282 Chinese immigrants without legal documents, ran aground off the coast of Long Island in 1992, the INS took the passengers into custody and heard their claims for asylum. About one-third of the passengers' claims were denied and they were deported; another third were settled in Latin America, and the rest were eventually allowed to stay in the United States. Some had claimed that they were refugees because they opposed the one-child-per-family policy and forced abortions in China.

Refugees also continued to arrive from Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union. Senator Frank Lautenburg of New Jersey convinced Congress in 1989 to amend the ForeignPage 366  |  Top of Article Aid Appropriations Act to permit Jews and evangelical Christians to be considered religious refugees provided that they could demonstrate a "credible basis for concern about the possibility" of persecution rather than the more difficult to prove "well founded fear." This shift was motivated by political factors rather than anti-Russian fears or fears of communism. Congress extended it until 1994 and eventually 300,000 persons came to America under the Lautenburg amendment.

Immigrants still came from Indochina. Most were Vietnamese; only a few thousand Cambodians and Laotians arrived. Even the Vietnamese numbers were drastically cut by the 1990s, and most simply arrived under the family unification preferences of the immigration system. Indeed, relations improved between the United States and Vietnam in the 1990s, and the U.S. government no longer perceived communism to be a threat in Asia.

Armed conflict against Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991 was hardly a Cold War affair. The United States marshaled military support from several Arab and European nations after Iraq occupied Kuwait. While the struggle was unfolding, persons from Kuwait and Iraq were granted temporary protected status. The U.S. led forces quickly drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, so a large stream of refugees did not develop. Nonetheless, Iraqis who managed to leave before the war began or after were given refuge in the United States. The INS could hardly do otherwise. More than a thousand per year were admitted as refugees in the last years of the twentieth century.

A sign of the shifting priorities of the post–Cold War era was the treatment of Cubans trying to reach the United States by boat in 1994. Because the Mariel exodus included mentally ill and criminal passengers, the U.S. and Cuban governments argued about Cuba taking back these persons considered undesirable. Negotiations partly resolved the crisis, with Cuba receiving some Marielitos and the United States agreeing to process Cubans who wanted to emigrate. Roughly 11,000 Cubans managed to come through regular channels between 1985 and 1994. A few also reached Florida by boat after the Mariel exodus ended, but their numbers were not large from 1980 to 1994.

As social and economic conditions deteriorated in Cuba, many more Cubans, using what boats they could find, headed for Florida in the summer of 1994. These "rafters" posed a diplomatic problem for the Clinton administration. Not wishing to see a repeat of the Mariel crisis, when more than 130,000 entered the United States without inspection, the president announced that the "rafters" would not be allowed to reach the United States. Rather, the Coast Guard returned them to Cuba or detained them at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba. The administration knew that if the Cubans reached Florida, they would be covered by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Eventually, Cuba and the United States worked out an agreement for an orderly process to admit eligible Cubans, up to 20,000 annually, and in return Cuba would try to halt the exodus. Those at the Guantánamo base were to be processed through careful screening. Cuban Americans and their friends in the United States claimed that under this arrangement the Cuban Adjustment Act was effectively repealed, but the Clinton administration did succeed in preventing another Mariel exodus. With no support from the Soviet Union, Cuba seemed much less threatening—hardly a danger to the noncommunist nations of the Western Hemisphere.

American interest in Africa was considerably less than its interest in Latin America, Europe, and Asia during the Cold War years. As a result, few African refugees entered, and most of them originated in Ethiopia. That country had been an American ally in the Cold War until 1974, when a military and left-wing revolution succeeded in overthrowing the existing government. Washington gave Ethiopians who were in the United States at that time the right to remain temporarily. When it did not appear that the leftwing government would be replaced, the State Department and INS agreed to the admission of a few thousand Ethiopians annually and granted asylum to many who were already in the United States. By the end of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, about 20,000 Ethiopians had won asylum cases or had been permitted to enter as refugees. These numbers are not large compared to Asian, European, and Cuban refugees, but until the early 1990s, Ethiopians constituted the vast majority of African refugees.

Ethiopians continued to arrive as refugees after 1989, but American policy toward Africa looked to other issues than Marxism or communism. Stability and humanitarian concerns were at the center of the new policy. In 1992 the United States entered a civil war in Somalia. The effort to stabilize Somalia failed, and U.S. troops were ordered home. However, as an aftermath to aid those caught in the war, the door was opened to Somali refugees, numbering nearly 30,000 duringPage 367  |  Top of Article the 1990s. In 1997, Somalis accounted for half of all African refugees.

Somalia was by no means the only nation divided by civil war and violence. Other African nations experienced such upheavals, and although U.S. forces were not engaged in a major way, the Clinton administration admitted African refugees from some of these conflicts. When Liberia, a nation that the United States had helped establish in the nineteenth century, experienced violence, Liberians in the United States received temporary protected status and others became refugees. The State Department and INS also admitted several hundred ethnic Nuer from the Sudan. Included were the "Lost Boys of Sudan," part of a group of 10,000 boys who had fled the Sudan's violence in 1992 and had lived in various African refugee camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the State Department recommended that 3,600 of these young men be admitted, and the first group of 500 arrived in the United States in 2001. Sudanese, Ethiopians, Liberians, and Somalis arrived from Africa in the largest numbers, but a few hundred others also found a safe haven in the United States during the 1990s. Among these were the sensational cases of several African women who received asylum on the grounds that if they returned to their homeland they would be subject to genital mutilation. The INS announced that it would consider mutilation as a factor in determining what a "well-founded fear" meant for asylum cases. While the United States avoided military intervention in the ethnic bloodshed in Rwanda, it announced that more refugees from that nation would be admitted. However, the numbers were only a few hundred.

While the decisions rested in part on humanitarian considerations, President Clinton was also responding to the pressures of the Black Caucus in Congress and various lobbying groups that wanted to increase the number of refugees arriving from Africa. The Black Caucus also attacked the INS and the State Department for sending Haitian refugees back to Haiti or interning them at the Guantánamo naval base for careful screening. Clinton signaled a shift in foreign policy to give more attention to Africa during two visits he made there toward the end of his second term. After his first trip in 1998, the president announced that the refugee quota from all of Africa would be increased. African quotas were upped to 7,000 in 1997 and 12,000 the next year. After Clinton's second visit in 2000, the State Department said that the African quota would be increased to 20,000. The figure was still only 25 percent of the total, but it marked a major increase in African refugees.

The last area of foreign policy considerations with implications for refugee policy was the Balkans and the bloodshed there in the 1990s. When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the 1990s, ethnic violence erupted. The Bosnian parliament declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but Bosnian ethnic Serbs violently opposed it. Soon a three-way war broke out between Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Serbs massacred thousands of Muslims and engaged in "ethnic cleansing" to drive Muslims out of Bosnia. The western European powers and the United States condemned Serbs for their killing and raping in Bosnia and finally negotiated a peace in 1995 and put in place an international peacekeeping force. The truce was an uneasy one, and before it and after, tens of thousands of Bosnians fled to western Europe and the United States for refuge. The flow continued even after the peacekeepers arrived. From 1986 to 1999 more than 100,000 Bosnians entered as refugees, with 30,906 recorded in 1998 and 22,697 the next year. In 1991, 1,660 refugees from Croatia were also received as refugees. The INS does not keep religious data, but most Bosnian refugees were Muslims.

When Yugoslavian Serbs expanded the ethnic conflict to Kosovo and killed many ethnic Albanians or sent them across the border to Albania, the West once again witnessed more "ethnic cleansing." This time NATO powers carried out their threat of military force and used airpower to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo and attacked Yugoslavia as well. After a successful air war in 1999, NATO troops occupied Kosovo to try to maintain a truce between those Serbs and ethnic Albanians remaining there. While the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians was under way and during the war itself, as in so many other cases, the number of refugees increased: 14,280 refugees, who were mainly Kosovars, were received in the United States from Yugoslavia. A few hundred others in the United States won their asylum pleas.


In sum, the United States has always accepted refugees, even though such immigrants were not necessarily defined in the immigration laws. Government officials in Washington, including membersPage 368  |  Top of Article of Congress and the president, often responded to overseas crises by linking refugees to foreign policy. A variety of nationality, religious, and ethnic private groups also pressured the government to admit refugees. Most of the admissions, from the arrival of exiles from the French Revolution in the 1790s to World War II, were permitted because the nation wished to inform the world that the United States was an "asylum for mankind."

After World War II, refugee policy underwent change. America's new role in the world prompted political leaders to admit thousands of refugees and displaced persons in Europe. As the Cold War came to dominate American foreign affairs, most refugees were perceived as fleeing communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in eastern Europe, America changed the type of refugee it was willing to receive, but that new policy was still heavily influenced by foreign affairs and domestic politics.

From 1789 to the present, refugee policy was often made on an ad hoc basis. Even following the 1965 immigration act's provisions and the Refugee Act of 1980, government officials often responded to political pressure groups in determining which persons were accepted. Cubans were refugees but Haitians were not. Refugee policy differs little from immigration policy in that it is often confused, ad hoc, and constantly changing. For the immediate future it appears that these policies will continue to be the result of foreign affairs and internal pressures.


Catanese, Anthony V. Haitians: Migration and Diaspora. Boulder, Colo., 1999.

Childs, Frances Sergeant. French Refugee Life in the United States, 1790–1800: An American Chapter of the French Revolution. Baltimore, 1940. Short work on the French refugees to the United States during the 1790s.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants' Struggle for U.S. Residency. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. Careful study of Salvadoran attempts to win refugee status and asylum in the United States.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992. An important book on the connection between American ethnic groups and foreign policy.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York, 1982. The definitive work on passage of the Displaced Persons Act after World War II.

Gimpel, James G., and James Edwards, Jr. The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform. Boston, 1999. Detailed study of congressional immigration policy, with a discussion of refugee policy.

Hein, Jeremy. From Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Refugee Experience in the United States. New York, 1995.

Hunt, Alfred N. Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge, La., 1988. Solid book on how America responded to Haitian attempts to win asylum.

Keely, Charles B., Robert W. Tucker, and Linda Wrigley, eds. Immigration and U.S. Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo., 1990.

Koehn, Peter H. Refugees from Revolution: U.S. Policy and Third World Migration. Boulder, Colo., 1991. Good summary of post–World War II immigration policy as it relates to developing nations.

Lerski, Jerzy Jan. A Polish Chapter in Jacksonian America: The United States and the Polish Exiles of 1831. Madison, Wis., 1958.

Loescher, Gil. Beyond Charity: International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis. New York, 1993.

Loescher, Gil, and John A. Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America's Half-Open Door, 1945 to the Present. New York and London, 1986. Excellent account of anticommunism and American refugee policies after 1945.

Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959–1995. Lanham, Md., 1996. Useful summary of American policy toward Cuba, noting the shifts beginning in 1994.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York, 1985.

Poyo, Gerald Eugene. With All, and for the Good of All: The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 1848–1898. Durham, N.C., 1989.

Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America. 2d ed. New York, 1992.

Robinson, W. Courtland. Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response. London and New York, 1998. Good summary not only of American but world response to the Indochinese refugees.

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Schrag, Philip G. A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America. New York, 2000. Detailed summary of congressional politics and recent refugee policy.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2000. Important study of ethnic groups and their role in shaping American foreign policy, with useful material on refugees.

Stepick, Alex. Pride Against Prejudice: Haitians in the United States. Boston, 1998.

Wilson, David A. United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945. New York, 1984. Major study of American policy toward the Holocaust during World War II, critical of U.S. policy.

Zucker, Norman L., and Naomi Flink Zucker. The Guarded Gate: The Reality of American Refugee Policy. San Diego, 1987.

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Refugee Policies

CARL SCHURZ (1829–1906)

Carl Schurz participated in the German revolutionary activities of 1848. He joined a failed attempt to seize the arsenal at Siegburg and was forced to flee to the Palatine, also in Germany, where he joined the revolutionary forces there. He quickly became a wanted man by German authorities; rather than face charges of treason, he fled to France. He did return long enough to liberate one of the leaders but was forced to take refuge again in France and also England. Schurz came to the United States in 1852 and began a long career in American politics and government. He eventually became a U.S. senator, fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union, and served as secretary of the interior. He also worked with German groups, encouraging them to fight in the Civil War and become active in politics. Most scholars believe that Schurz was the most prominent German American in the nineteenth century.

Refugee Policies


Albert Einstein was the most prominent man to take refuge in the United States during the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, but is best known for his theories of relativity. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in Germany in 1933, he was in Princeton, New Jersey, at the Institute for Advanced Study. He elected to remain in the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940. He never returned to Germany. Alarmed by the rising power of Hitler's Germany, he wrote his most famous letter, a plea to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging that the United States fund research into the possibility of the making of an atomic bomb.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3402300131