A Very… very Short History of Refugee Resettlement in the United States

Burundi Refugees in South Africa

Originally posted in the commentary section of this page, I am also including it here since it goes a little deeper than what might be generally considered a blog post. Figured it could stand alone:

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees recently estimated that the number of forcibly displaced persons around the world has reached nearly sixty million people, a figure that shows few signs of abating anytime soon. While the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS is a significant contributing factor to this increase, conflicts across Africa (including the Congo and Sudan), in Europe (Ukraine), in Asia (Pakistan and Myanmar), and elsewhere have contributed to the rise in the number of displaced persons in recent years.[1]

While the scope of forced migration is daunting, the problem is nothing new. One could scan history and find any number of situations in which innocent people are forced from their home in the wake of violence and a rising religious or political fanaticism. The past fifty years alone have witnessed incredible atrocities around the world that have led to the displacement of millions of people. During that same period, the U.S. government and the international community has made important advances in providing protections to displaced populations.

Three standard responses, or durable solutions, have helped to frame the international response to refugee crises: voluntary repatriation, integration into the country of first asylum, and resettlement to a third country. Voluntary repatriation is the preferred option since it signifies that the original cause for displacement has subsided to the point that it is safe for the refugee to return home. However, with the threat of continued persecution or ongoing conflict, it may be best for the refugee to remain in the country of first asylum and integrate into the local community. If remaining in the country of first asylum is not viable because of local resistance, lack of economic capacity, or another reason, resettlement to a third country might be the only realistic solution.

One of the early, systematic efforts by the international community to respond to the post-World War II refugee crisis came with passage of The Convention on Refugees, which was approved at a United Nations conference on July 28, 1951. As a consequence of the political, religious, and ethnic persecution during that period, millions of men, women, and children living in Europe were displaced from their homes and forced to flee in search of safety elsewhere. In response, the international community provided protection to European refugees who had been displaced prior to January 1 of that year, and issued the first officially recognized definition of a refugee, which has become the standard mechanism used to determine who can qualify for such status. The Convention defines a refugee as

A person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.[2]

The narrowly tailored temporal and geographic limitations of the Convention were eliminated with the 1967 Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees, but the definition of what constitutes a refugee has remained unchanged. In recent years the question as to whether or not this definition should be expanded so as to take into accounts new realities and expanded has arisen. For example, with climate change becoming an ever more present threat, the term “climate refugee” has become more salient, although according to present international agreements currently in place it remains a misnomer.

In the United States, while the resettlement of European refugees began in earnest in the post-war period, primarily as a consequence of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the federal government and voluntary organizations began to coordinate their refugee resettlement work as early as the late 1930s. These early efforts planted the seeds for the public-private partnership that blossomed in later decades as their activities became more closely intertwined. From 1948 to 1950, the US government admitted just over 200,000 displaced persons, primarily through this network of organizations. A similar number were admitted five years later following the passage of the Refugee Relief Act.

The onset of the Cold War shaped the way in which refugee admissions were handled. At times, political leadership resisted efforts to resettle refugees for fear that it would admit communist subversives that would plot to undermine national security. As often as not, the admission of refugees was viewed as a tool that could weaken Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and further the United States’ Cold War objectives. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 grounded this Cold War paradigm into law by explicitly providing a Cold War-oriented, ideologically based definition of a refugee as someone who fled from “any Communist or Communist dominated country or area.”[3]

Such a framework is evident in the Hungarian uprising of 1956. In reaction to national unrest for political reform in Hungary, Soviet troops launched a crackdown on protesters, killing thousands and forcing tens of thousands more to flee to Yugoslavia and Austria. To relieve some of the pressures of this influx on the Austrian government, President Eisenhower agreed to resettle some 38,000 Hungarian refugees into the United States. In a statement on January 1, 1957, he noted that the admission of these refugees into the U.S. “will permit the United States to continue, along with the other free nations of the world, to do its full share in providing a haven for these victims of oppression.”[4] His appeal to liberty here and elsewhere is an obvious contrast to the authoritarian and oppressive communist regimes from which they were escaping.

Following a nearly six year campaign, in January 1959 Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement and its allies ousted then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s rise to power and subsequent rule precipitated a significant rupture in Cuban society that contributed to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States over the next two decades. By 1962 nearly 200,000 Cubans had fled, many of who were in some way allied with the Batista regime. Emigration to the US slowed substantially for a time following the Cuban Missile Crisis but resumed with the establishment of the “Freedom Flights” (1965 – 1973) that brought in three to four thousand exiles every month.

Given the large influx of Cubans into the United States during this period, more financial and social support was required as local support systems were being overwhelmed by the growing demands for assistance. The Cuban government’s decision in 1960 to confiscate the personal property of Cubans who fled to the United States strained the resources of local agencies and led the US government to establish the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in Miami, Florida. The President subsequently commissioned the Director of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish a Cuban Refugee Program. Further funds were appropriated through passage of The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962, which provided direct support for refugees, including education, employment, health, reception and registration services of Cuban nationals who arrived in Miami.

Running parallel to the ebb and flow of Cuban exiles who were arriving on American shores during the 1960s, the United States government launched the war in Vietnam, which set the stage for massive displacement in Southeast Asia. Following the withdrawal of the United States and the communist takeover of Hanoi in 1975, more than a million persons were forced to flee their homes and find safety elsewhere. Many of these refugees fled to surrounding countries, with hundreds of thousands of them eventually reaching the United States.

With the growing complexity of the resettlement program it became important to rationalize the entire process and, in 1979, Jimmy Carter took an important step forward by establishing of the Office of the Coordinator of Refugee Affairs. Following the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the process for refugee resettlement was more carefully formalized, new institutions were established to help guide these processes, and relations between the federal government and voluntary agencies interested in resettlement became more integrated.

The Act also undercut the Cold War based paradigm that had framed refugee resettlement for over a decade and brought the definition of what constituted a refugee in U.S. law in line with the one provided in the Refugee Convention. Although the Cold War framework was eliminated with the passage of the refugee act, international politics still played an important role with respect to how the US approached refugee crises, as disparate treatment continued to be given to different groups during the 1980s. Nicaraguans, for example, who were seen as fleeing from communism, were provided a more receptive welcome than El Salvadorians who were also fleeing conflict and persecution, but one that was recognized as an ally of the US.

From the end of the Cold War to the present, refugee crises have continued to flare up across the globe, from Rwanda in Africa to Kosovo in Eastern Europe. The Rwandan genocide, which began in early 1994 and took the lives of at least a half a million people, led to the flight of as many as two million more to surrounding countries. In 1999 up to a million ethnic Albanians fled the Kosovo region in Eastern Europe in the midst of a conflict involving NATO and Serbian forces. Elsewhere, countless people have been forcibly displaced over the past two decades, only a small fraction of which have been resettled into the United States or elsewhere. Some have managed to return home, but many millions continue to find themselves mired in refugee camps for a decade or longer.

Since 9/11 national security concerns have become paramount in the screening and admissions process, particularly as it pertains to the admittance of Muslim refugees. In important respects, contemporary debates over resettlement reflect a similar logic to those advanced during the Cold War. Rather than fearing an infiltration by communists, new concerns have arisen over the admission of terrorists via the refugee resettlement system. Concerns remain that Muslim refugees will use the refugee system to reap terror among local populations. This concern – however unfounded given the expansive security and background checks that are in place to vet refugees – signifies one of the central concerns that work against the US continuing a tradition of welcome to the downtrodden, displaced, and vulnerable.

Originally published via A Matter of Spirit

Photo Credit: Tawe/Zplit from johannesburg, RSA


[1] “Worldwide Displacement Hits All-time High as War and Persecution Increase,” June 18, 2015, http://www.unhcr.org/558193896.html.
[2] UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, Article 1, http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf.
[3] Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the Cold War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 97.
[4] Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Statement by the President Concerning Hungarian Refugees.,” January 1, 1957.Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10800.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s