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 the 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, Presidents 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 involved 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: 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.