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.


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.

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.

See also Asylum ; Human Rights ; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief ; Immigration ; Neutrality ; Race and Ethnicity .

Other articles you might like:

Follow Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: