This article is the first in a series concerning refugees in the United States, including a history of refugees in America, the application process and acceptance of refugees, the costs and benefits of refugee acceptance, and the addressing of several common questions. Each article strives to provide useful, sourced information, in order to help understand what is a very complex issue. This series is in no way definitive or exhaustive, and you are encouraged to seek out additional information, but I hope that you find it valuable.

As a nation comprised primarily of immigrants and their descendants, the United States has long grappled with the topic of foreigners, their worthiness, and their eventual assimilation into the culture. Present day debates concerning the acceptance of refugees from the Syrian civil war represent only a new chapter in that debate. There are many definitions of a refugee, but understanding the present debate requires assessing the general and legal definitions of both a refugee and an immigrant. Once defined, it is easy to see that there have been several periods in the history of the United States where immigrants have proven to be refugees as well. The status of refugee would not exist legally in the U.S. until the 20th century, however, allowing for specific policies and programs aimed at accepting and settling refugees. The resulting programs continue a 4-century-long story of refugees that have looked to North America and the United States as a haven of protection from fear and violence.

In order to understand the history of refugees in the United States, it is important to first define what constitutes a refugee, and how that relates to the larger topic of immigration. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a refugee is, “one that flees; especially…a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.”1 Inherent in the definition is the distinction that a refugee is displaced as a result of the threat of harm. Other definitions of refugee share this central trait. For example, the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets forth the legal definition of a refugee in the United States, defines a refugee as:

any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.2

Again, an emphasis is placed upon the individual’s determined avoidance of harm, provided the threat of harm is a reasonable one. In contrast, the same Immigration and Nationality Act defines an immigrant as just, “every alien,” excluding scenarios where an alien is passing through national borders as a part of their duties, such as a pilot.3 Clearly the definition of an immigrant is much broader than that of a refugee, encompassing all non-citizens that cross into the United States with the intention of settling. By definition then a refugee is an immigrant, but an immigrant is not always a refugee. While the distinction may appear academic, the history of immigration in the United States can be demonstrated to be one of waves of refugees over the more than four centuries.

Though the United States did not formally acknowledge the status of a refugee until the 20th century, refugees have had a significant impact on the nation. Prior to the founding of the U.S. the Pilgrims immigrated to North America in hopes of escaping religious persecution resulting from the continued fallout of the Protestant Reformation. The Pilgrims, as separatists from the Church of England, fled violence and torture first for Holland, and then to North America.4 William Bradford, second governor of Plymouth Plantation, recorded that the Pilgrims had suffered, “bloody death and cruell[sic] torments,” as well as, “imprisonments, banishments, & other hard usages.”5 By definition their plight warranted the status of refugee long before any law or treaty would codify their experience as such. The settlement of Quakers in Pennsylvania during the same period could also be said to qualify. In the 19th century, following protracted conflict in central Europe and a massive potato famine, large numbers of German and Irish families began immigrating to the United States to escape war, poverty, and starvation. Again, the definition of refugee easily applies in retrospect. An additional wave of immigrants fleeing much the same occurred around the turn of the 20th century as many Italian and Jewish families fled civil war and religious persecution respectively. Each of these cases exhibits the qualities of refugees, even if they are typically labeled as immigration.

The previous examples may be considered cases of immigration because from the perspective of federal law, the United States’ relationship with refugees is both a modern and highly political issue. According to Refugee Council USA, the country began officially accepting refugees as a separate class from immigrants with the passage of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 in the early days of the Cold War. Prior to this act no distinction was made between a voluntary immigrant and a refugee, and no specific protections were presented for refugees. According to the act itself, the goal of the law was to, “authorize for a limited period of time the admission into the United States of certain European displaced persons for permanent residence.”6 Legislators recognized the need for action to assist those in need, but they only intended to do so for a finite amount of time. In signing the bill, President Truman issued a statement lamenting the act’s shortcomings, including that, “the bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.”7 The system created by the Displaced Persons Act set limits on the numbers of refugees that the United States would accept and from where they would be accepted, which was mostly those fleeing communism in Europe at the time.8 Underscoring the political nature of accepting refugees, the Displaced Persons Act required that refugee eligibility be dependent upon the adult refugees being capable of working without displacing an American workman, and that their families not require any public assistance in order to subsist safely.9 Basically, a refugee could not threaten an American job or become dependent upon the country’s taxpayers.

Refugee policy underwent a significant shift in 1980 with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. The change was prompted by the United States’ acceptance of the United Nation’s Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees in 1968.10 Despite this alignment, a report by the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights issued a decade later posits that the implementation of the law had proven highly political, specifically in its usage to further foreign policy agendas.11 The result had been the preferential treatment of refugees depending upon their country of origin, even though the law strove to create a neutral and unbiased acceptance system.12 Nonetheless, the act did provide for the creation of a single process to handle the acceptance of refugees abroad, as well as those already in the United States seeking asylum.13 Today, the program is known as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and is administered by the State Department.

According to a factsheet concerning the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the United States has accepted approximately 3 million refugees in the 35 years since the implementation of the Refugee Act of 1980.14 Prior to this period, however, the United States has seen several major migrations of people to its shores who would likewise qualify as refugees by today’s standards. Each influx of immigrants, hoping to escape persecution in their home countries, became part of the highly political immigration debate that has been ongoing since nearly the founding of the country. Though tumultuous, millions of individuals have found refuge, navigating the processes and programs of their time, either as immigrants or refugees.

  1. “Refugee.” Accessed November 21, 2015.
  2. Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. Code, title 8, sec. 1101(42).
  3. Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. Code, title 8, sec. 1101(15)
  4. Bradford, William, and Harold Paget. Of Plymouth Plantation. Dover ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2006, 1-27.
  5. Ibid, 1.
  6. Congress, Senate, Displaced Persons Act of 1948, 80th Cong., 2nd sess., S. 2242 (25 June 1948).
  7. Truman, Harry. “Statement by the President Upon Signing the Displaced Persons Act.” Truman Library – Public Papers of the Presidents: Harry S. Truman. Accessed November 25, 2015.
  8. Congress, Senate, Displaced Persons Act of 1948, 80th Cong., 2nd sess., S. 2242 (25 June 1948).
  9. Ibid.
  10. “The Implementation of the Refugee Act of 1980: A Decade of Experience.” March 1, 1990. Accessed November 25, 2015.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Refugee Act of 1980, Public Law 96-212, U.S. Statutes at Large 94 (1980): 102-18.
  14. “Refugee Resettlement in the United States.” U.S. Department of State. May 23, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2015.