Ike Signed the Refugee Relief Act On This Date
How do you feel about the Refugee Relief Act on its anniversary?
by Countable | 8.6.19
On August 7, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Refugee Relief Act into law, granting admission to 214,000 refugees fleeing persecution and communism.
Why did it come up?
In the aftermath of World War II, there were millions of displaced persons across Europe, many of whom fled into parts of Western Europe controlled by the allies to escape communist rule behind the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain”.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 led to 200,000 such people being admitted to the U.S. as permanent residents above regular immigration quotas, and it was extended in 1950 to allow the admission of another 200,000 displaced persons. But quotas later imposed by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 effectively excluded refugees trying to escape from Eastern and Southern Europe.
The INA, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act after its architects Sen. Pat McCarran (D-NV) and Rep. Francis Walter (D-PA), was the first law to organize all of the various immigration statutes into one text. Its enactment came about through an override of President Harry Truman’s veto, who called those exclusions “un-American” and wrote in his veto message:
“We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries ― on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”
What did it do?
The Refugee Relief Act allowed for the admission of 214,000 refugees primarily from parts of Europe that came under communist rule, particularly those excluded by the INA, including:
- 55,000 visas for ethnic Germans who were expelled from their homes and another 35,000 for ethnic Germans who escaped persecution in communist controlled territory.
- 60,000 visas for ethnic Italians, including those in what would become communist Yugoslavia.
- 17,000 visas for ethnic Greeks looking to flee their country which had been destabilized by a civil war started in a bid by communists to seize power.
- 17,000 visas for Dutch refugees.
- 10,000 visas to escapees who fled communist rule in Europe to NATO member nations, Sweden, Iran, or Turkey (which hadn’t yet been admitted to NATO).
- 5,000 visas to be distributed by U.S. consulates in the Far East.
- 4,000 visas for orphans under 10 years of age who were to be adopted by American families.
- 2,000 visas for former members of the Polish military who resided in Britain and couldn’t return to their homeland, which was under communist rule.
- 2,000 visas for ethnic Chinese who traveled to the U.S. on student visas before Chinese communists seized power in their civil war.
- 2,000 visas for Jewish immigrants still residing in Europe who would have the option to immigrate to Israel.
Would-be refugees had to provide proof of their identity, pass a security screening that verified their activities for the past two years, and provide evidence of persecution if they claimed such threats as a reason for applying. Applicants also had to demonstrate their employability, show that their jobs wouldn’t displace American workers, and make assurances that they or their families wouldn’t go on welfare. Preference was also given to applicants with relatives already in the U.S.
To prevent former Nazis from gaining admission to the U.S., the bill prohibited any person who “personally advocated or assisted in the persecution” of any person or group of people based on their race, religion, or national origin from receiving a visa. Applicants found to have misrepresented themselves in became ineligible for admission.
The legislation passed Congress despite the misgivings of Senator McCarran, who opposed it despite allowing the Senate to pass the final version of the Refugee Relief Act on a voice vote.
In his signing statement, President Eisenhower noted the bill’s “dramatic contrast to the tragic events taking place in East Germany and in other captive nations” and added:
“In enacting this legislation, we are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans. This action demonstrates again America’s traditional concern for the homeless, the persecuted, and the less fortunate of other lands… They ― as I said in last night’s Report to the Nation ― are men and women of the same character and integrity as our ancestors who, generation upon generation, have come to America to find peace and work, to build for themselves new homes in freedom.”
What has its impact been?
By the end of the 1956 when the Refugee Relief Act was due to expire, all of the 214,000 visas authorized by the law had been issued to eligible refugees, escapees, and orphans.
According to data from our partners at USAFacts ― a non-partisan civic data initiative ― the mid-1950s saw the first post-war uptick in naturalizations of new American citizens ― including some who were initially granted visas under the Refugee Relief Act. Naturalizations didn’t reach those levels again for nearly two decades, when there was a similar influx of refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia who became U.S. citizens.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Republic of Macedonia Archives / Public Domain)
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