According to the United Nations, a refugee is somebody who has fled his country of citizenship and will not return because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Refugees have played an important role in American history, but for most of that time, there was no legal distinction in our laws between economic immigrants and refugees.
Prior to 1921, refugees could show up at ports of entry and be admitted with few exceptions. In that year, Congress passed its first law subjecting immigrants to a numerical quota. Three years later, Congress lowered the quotas and made them favor immediate family members. Crucially, Congress made no provision for refugees or asylum seekers, which had terrible results due to the rise of Nazism, fascism and communism.
When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, many German Jews attempted to leave. Through administrative finagling, about 127,000 of them were able to come to the United States by 1940. However, during those years, the quota for German immigrants was under-filled by 110,000, meaning that at least that many more Jews could have come here under the restrictive laws in place.
The spectacle of the St. Louis, a German passenger ship full of Jewish refugees, being turned away by the American government cemented the image of America’s disregard for those fleeing Nazism. Many of them had affidavits of support from Jewish-American aid associations and their American family, but they were turned away. Most had no choice but to return to Nazi Germany.
American diplomatic officials in Germany liberally granted tourist visas to German Jews and the Franklin Roosevelt administration allowed them to overstay. But those legal changes were not enough. By June 1939, 309,782 nationals of the Greater German Reich (including Austria and Czechoslovakia) had applied to come to the U.S., but the quotas imposed a wait time longer than a decade.
World War II interrupted the immigration of those refugees, sealing their fates.
In the 1930s, the United States admitted more Jewish-German refugees than any other country, but it wasn’t enough. The United States has a founding myth based on settlers fleeing oppression to settle in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were followed by the Huguenots, Christian religious dissenters from all over Europe, the Irish and Germans fleeing the revolutions of 1848.
Prior to the 20th century, the most intense emigration was of Jews escaping Eastern Europe, beginning in about 1881. Although many came for economic reasons, the scale of their emigration was due to oppression and frequent pogroms. Annual Jewish emigration from 1900 to 1913 was equal to about 2 percent of the entire Jewish population in Eastern Europe and Russia. Congress should have known about the perils faced by Jews in Europe, but it did nothing to take account of them when closing America’s traditional open door.
After World War II, American policymakers created a refugee and asylum law. It was partly an admission that the 1920s immigration restrictions were inhumane and partly a nod to Cold War politics. Every refugee from a communist country was further evidence that the U.S. and her Western allies were superior to the Soviet system. There’s evidence that Congress reformed other American immigration laws for propaganda reasons.
An anti-communist uprising in Hungary led to an exodus of highly skilled and educated refugees in the mid- to late 1950s. There was already a sizeable Hungarian-American population to help them integrate. After Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, the so-called “golden exiles” fled to the United States. Those largely wealthy and educated refugees were then followed by waves of less skilled Cubans in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A special law called the “wet feet, dry feet policy” allowed Cubans who made it to American soil to stay.
Those later waves of Cubans were met by many of their former countrymen, who had already settled and integrated into American society. There was some animosity between the new arrivals and the settled group, but also a lot of aid for the new arrivals.
Unlike many of the Cubans and Hungarian, there were few Vietnamese-Americans to welcome the hundreds of thousands of boat people who arrived following the communist conquest of Saigon. Many settled in California, where they famously took over the nail salon industry. Vietnamese refugees are still coming today.
The current crises are affecting even more people today. Syrian refugees recently streamed through the border in Turkey. Nine hundred refugees drowned in the Mediterranean trying to escape the chaos of Africa and the Middle East. About 1 percent of world refugees are resettled in developed nations, but the rest languish in refugee camps in places like Lebanon, where a quarter of that country’s population are now refugees from the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
About 4 million Syrians were forced out of the country by the conflict. Since October 2014, the United States has let in just 800 Syrian refugees. There are security concerns with Syrian refugees and the government needs to thoroughly review their individual backgrounds before allowing them to settle here, but more should be allowed to do so.
Settling here is just the first step; assimilation and integration are also important. Fortunately, past success bodes well for current groups.
Refugees who came between 1975 and 1980 originally started with lower incomes and fewer skills than economic migrants. But by 1990s, those refugees were making 20 percent more income and improved their language skills more than economic migrants. Refugees cannot return to their homeland like many economic migrants do, so many make serious long-term commitments to learn English and other relevant skills.
The goal of the Office of Refugee Resettlement is economic self-sufficiency — refugees working and supporting themselves without public assistance. That is a worthy goal, but more strict denials of means-tested welfare or blocking it entirely for refugees can speed up integration.
Fewer welfare benefits mean that refugees more rapidly enter the labor market, search for jobs and work with Americans on a daily basis. Work boosts self-confidence, which increases refugee satisfaction and contentment with their new homes. A growing economy combined with smaller welfare benefits in Richmond, Va. helped to rapidly integrate that city’s refugee population in the 1980s and 1990s.
American taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to foot the bill. Refugees have access to some means-tested welfare benefits before other immigrants do; that should end. Churches, charities and mutual aid associations should fulfill that responsibility.
There are over 150,000 Americans of Syrian descent, with a median household income of over $65,000, compared to about $53,000 for native-born Americans. They can help ease Syrian refugees into life in the United States. It’s enough for the U.S. government to allow more peaceful Syrians who have passed through national security, criminal and health checks to settle here — the government should not, and does not, need to support them.
June 20 marks World Refugee Day. But this week saw another anniversary: One-hundred thirty years ago, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York. At the statue’s base, the famous words “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are followed by “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” The present refugee crisis and America’s historical commitment to humanitarian immigration should impel us to allow more of them to settle here.