Refugee Policies - A modified refugee policy

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 again 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.

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