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.

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