Refugee Policies - Post–cold war refugees and policy

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 Foreign 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 during 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.

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