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Refugees Define America: Q & A

Q. How many refugees has the United States resettled?

A. Since 1945, approximately five million refugees have resettled in the United States from 70 countries

Q. When did the United States start accepting refugees?

A. The term refugee wasn’t defined until the mid-twentieth century, but their predecessors have been coming to American shores since the pilgrims fled religious persecution centuries prior. Legalization of refugee admissions began on December 22,1945, when President Harry S. Truman allowed for 40,000 refugees from Europe to come to the United States. Congress enacted the first refugee legislation in 1948 after more than 250,000 Europeans displaced by World War II arrived. This legislation provided for the admission of an additional four hundred thousand European refugees from 1948-1952.

Q. Who are the refugees the United States has welcomed historically?

A. Following World War II, 70 percent of the 400,000-plus refugees who came to the United States were from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Congress for the authority to admit more refugees, and it passed the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 that admitted another 189,000 people, including Europeans, Palestinians, and Asians.

To help refugees fleeing communism, Congress passed additional legislation for Hungarians and Soviet Jews. Then the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 created a centralized uniform immigration system that included a category for general refugee admissions without national, ethnic, or religious specifications.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson used executive authority to admit Cubans fleeing Castro’s communist state. From 1958-1962, two hundred thousand Cubans came to the United States. President Reagan continued in this tradition and resettled tens of thousands of Afghans and Iranians in the 1980s. Reagan resettled more refugees than any other president.

After the fall of Saigon and the American military withdrew from Vietnam, conditions in Laos and Cambodia further deteriorated and Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan admitted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees.

In the late 1990s under President Clinton, the United States began resettling refugees from the former Yugoslavia, admitting more than 150,000.

President George W. Bush began resettling refugees from Burma in the early 2000s, and following the passage of bipartisan legislation, Afghans and Iraqis who aided the U.S. government were admitted as well. President Obama continues to resettle these groups.

Q. Has the United States offered protection to our allies from conflict zones that have become refugees?

A. Upon the withdrawal of the final American troops from Vietnam in April 1975, President Gerald Ford set up a taskforce that resettled 131,000 refugees over the next several months. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all continued resettling Vietnamese refugees.

In 2008 and 2009, through a bipartisan effort, Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008 and the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 to create special immigrant visas programs to open a dedicated path to resettlement for Iraqis and Afghans facing persecution for their assistance to the United States.

Q. Has refugee resettlement been a partisan political issue?

A. Until recently support for refugee protection and resettlement has been overwhelmingly bipartisan.

Presidents from both political parties have spearheaded efforts during their tenure to lead on refugee resettlement because it embodies the best of American ideals. Legislation to welcome more refugees to the United States has always been a bipartisan endeavor.