A Nation of Refugees

A long standing viewpoint in the United States as related by Daniels in the book, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882, is one held by former President Jimmy Carter that “the United States was and always has been a ‘nation of refugees’” is historically inaccurate.[1] While it is true that there were people who fled their home country in the early years of our history, their numbers were relatively few in number and were outweighed with those who came seeking wealth and business opportunities and remained loyal to the crown.[2] Daniels goes on to relate that few Americans took notice of voiced any concern about political refugees during most of the nineteenth century. And that the first instance of the word “refugee” appearing “on the statute books [does not] appear until 1934.”[3] Therefore, there was a considerable period of our history, one hundred and fifty or so years, where the term refugee did not enter into public debate or statute books. What changed in our political landscape to cause this term to come to the forefront? How does the UN and US Governments definitions of “refugees” differ? And what does the status mean?

A common definition of a refugee is “a person who flees from one’s home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in time of war, or political or religious persecution”.[4] Despite the simplicity of the definition, there is “irrefutable evidence that many State Department officials consistently made it difficult for most refugees in general and Jewish refugees in particular to gain asylum in the United States.”[5] The State Department would consistently refuge applications for asylum for those fleeing from religious persecution in Germany. According to Daniels, there is clear evidence of anti-Semitism during this WWII era which prevented Jews from being granted refugee status in the United States despite the evidence of the Holocaust.[6] Despite FDR’s failure to propose and push through a resolute policy which would have granted many more emigrants refugee status, “150,000 refugees, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, did manage to reach the United States before Pearl Harbor, a significantly larger number than was admitted by any other nation: many thousands of others could have been saved by a more resolute policy”.[7]

The next major piece of legislation which resulted from and was framed by the policies of the Cold War, the 1952 McCarren-Walter Act “gave the Executive Branch – specifically the attorney general, discretionary parole power to grant temporary admission to unlimited numbers of aliens ‘for emergency reasons or for reasons deemed strictly in the public interest’”. [8] This was applied selectively to those seeking asylum from countries which had fallen to communism, Hungary, Cuba, Tibet, and Vietnam.[9]

Following this law was the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, which for the first time included Asians as refugees.[10] The language used in this law, shows it’s Cold War origins:

Any person in a country which is either communist or communist dominated, who because of persecution, fear of persecution, natural calamity or military operation is out of his usual place of abode and unable to return thereto, who has not been firmly resettled, and who is in urgent need of assistance for the essentials of life or for transportation. [11]

Similarly, as the United States became more involved in the Middle East, the laws were liberalized to include peoples from that region as well. All of these laws were based on the quota system whereby a certain number of refugees from each country whose citizens were imperil were allowed to allow for asylum. However, in 1960, both the Democratic and Republican parties advocated for a policy of liberalization which would do away with the quota system.[12]

As U.S. interventionism increased throughout the world, there was a worldwide outcry for it to reform its refugee policies to make them less discriminatory and selective. In 1967, the United Nations adopted the following definition of a refugee:

Any person who is outside any country of his nationality of in the case of any person having no nationality, is outside of any country in which he last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country because of persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership or a particular social group or political opinion.[13]

The U.S. signed the Refugee Act of 1980 which basically adopted the language put forth by the United Nations. It also served to create a new status of “asylee”. “An asylee is a person who applies for refugee status while already present on American soil.”[14] This provided a legal loophole for those illegally in the United States to seek legalization.

As the world’s population is more and more on the move, the earlier definitions, those constructed during the Cold War are less and less applicable. Many people live outside their country of origin, can’t for a multitude of reasons go through the lengthy process of applying for refugee status in their “home country”, especially, if they have already been forced out by political, or religious reasons. These definitions also fail to provide for those forced out of their homelands because of climate change. As the planet heats up, water is becoming more and more scarce, oceans are becoming more and more polluted and we are seeing that those who have more resources are seeking to take control of the remaining resources for their own benefit (think: Dakota Access Pipeline). Until our national leadership begins to take responsibility for the unrest that our policies around the world contribute to, and seek ways to mitigate damage caused, we will continue to see unprecedented numbers of people fleeing from one continent to another.



Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

[1] Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 72.

[2] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 72.

[3] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 73.

[4] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 72.

[5] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 74.

[6] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 76.

[7] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 80.

[8] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 125.

[9] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 125.

[10] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 125.

[11] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 126.

[12] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 129.

[13] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 203.

[14] Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 204.