Immigration and Naturalization Service Refugee Law and Policy Timeline, 1891-2003
USCIS began overseeing refugee admissions to the U.S. when it began operations on March 1, 2003. Before then, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) administered refugee admissions. This timeline traces the major events and policies that affected refugee admissions under the INS and its predecessor agencies, from 1891 to 2003.
Note: In 1980, the U.S. formally adopted the United Nation’s definition of the term “refugee” for legislative purposes. However, Congress, the INS, and the American public have long used and continue to use the term “refugee” to refer to a migrant who arrived in the U.S. after fleeing persecution or violence in his or her home country or after being displaced by natural disaster. This timeline uses that more general meaning of the word “refugee.”
1891: The Bureau of Immigration Established
In 1891, Congress created the Bureau of Immigration to oversee the admission of immigrants, including those considered “refugees.” Because early U.S. immigration laws did not restrict the number of immigrants the U.S. would accept, no separate laws existed for refugee admissions and refugees could resettle in the U.S. as long as they met the regular requirements for immigrant admissions.
1910-1920: The Mexican Revolution
1917: The Immigration Act of 1917
1921-1924: The Quota Acts
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, together known as “The Quota Acts,” set specific limits (quotas) on how many immigrants the U.S. would admit from every country each year. These acts made immigration easier for northern and western Europeans and much harder for immigrants from the rest of Europe and other nations. The strict quotas later contributed to the difficulties many Jews and other minorities faced as they sought refuge in the U.S. from persecution overseas before and during World War II and the Holocaust.
1939-1945: World War II
1945: The United Nations Established
Under a presidential directive dated Dec. 22, 1945, President Truman authorized displaced persons and refugees to receive expedited admission into the U.S., within the framework of existing immigration law.
At the president’s request, the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization traveled to Europe to investigate conditions and develop a plan to process displaced persons. Ultimately, the INS collaborated with the U.S. military, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Department of State, and numerous charitable organizations on a plan that allowed over 40,000 displaced persons to enter the U.S. under the existing quota regulations.
Additionally, the president’s directive allowed approximately 1,000 refugees already in the U.S. to adjust to lawful permanent resident status.
1945: Presidential Directive on Displaced Persons
Under a Presidential Directive dated December 22, 1945, President Truman authorized the expedited admission of displaced persons and refugees within the framework of existing immigration law.
At the President’s request, the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization traveled to Europe to investigate and develop a plan for processing displaced persons. Ultimately, the INS, the military, the Public Health Service, the Department of State, and numerous charitable organizations collaborated to facilitate the entry of over 40,000 displaced persons under the existing quota regulations.
Additionally, the President’s directive allowed approximately 1,000 refugees already in the U.S. to adjust to lawful permanent resident status.
1948: Displaced Persons Act of 1948
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the first specific “refugee” act passed by Congress, aimed to address the nearly 7 million displaced persons in Europe as a result of World War II. The act allowed refugees to enter the U.S. within the constraints of the existing quota system. The law required that admitted displaced persons find a place to live in the U.S. and a job that would not replace a worker already in the country. The Displaced Persons Act expired in 1952. Under the Act, the U.S. admitted more than 350,000 displaced persons.
1950-1951: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
1952: Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
1953: Refugee Relief Act of 1953
1956-1957: Hungarian Escapee Program
Following the rapid and violent 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union, thousands of Hungarians fled their homeland and sought refuge in Austria, which soon became overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. As a result, 36 nations, including the U.S., offered to help resettle the displaced Hungarians. The U.S. admitted 6,130 Hungarian refugees under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953.
Additionally, over 30,000 Hungarians entered the U.S. under the attorney general’s parole authority (section 212[d] of the INA). INS officers examined these applicants in Austria and again when they arrived in the U.S., where they were temporarily held at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
Two years later, on July 25, 1958, Congress passed a law allowing Hungarian parolees to become lawful permanent residents of the United States.
This program set the precedent for using the attorney general’s parole authority to admit refugees to the U.S. and for Congress to later pass special legislation allowing the parolees to become lawful permanent residents. This process would be repeated on several occasions during the following decades.
1952: Azorean Refugee Act of 1958
1959-1960: Fair Share Refugee Act of July 14, 1960
1959-1962: Cuban Refugees
After the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro into power on Jan. 1, 1959, thousands of Cubans fled for the U.S.
When the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, Cubans could no longer obtain visas in Havana. Instead, the U.S. admitted them under the attorney general’s parole authority. During the years 1961-1962, more than 58,000 Cubans entered the U.S. under this program.
The INS operated special processing centers in the Miami, Florida area, where INS officers screened newly arrived Cubans. The INS also held the Cubans until they could be admitted to the U.S. as refugees.
1962: Hong Kong Parole Program
Initiated in May 1962, the Hong Kong Parole Program used the Attorney General’s parole authority to authorize approximately 15,000 Chinese refugees who had fled from communist China to Hong Kong to enter the U.S. The program ran until 1966 and approximately 15,000 Chinese refugees were admitted into the United States.
The 1965 Amendments to the INA included provisions that allowed these refugees to adjust to lawful permanent resident status.
1962: Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962
The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 allowed Congress to provide monetary assistance to refugees, particularly those fleeing from Cold War communist countries.
The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act also extended the terms of the Fair Share Refugee Act and allowed nearly 20,000 refugees to enter the U.S. under the Attorney General’s parole authority between 1960-1965.
1965: The 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
The 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) eliminated the quota system and established a preference category for conditional entrants. These were aliens in noncommunist countries who had fled a communist country or the Middle East and were unwilling to return due to persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion. They also included people who were uprooted by catastrophic natural calamities as defined by the president.
Under the Act, conditional entrants were granted a temporary immigration status which could be adjusted to permanent resident status after two years.
The 1965 Act marked the first time Congress provided a permanent basis for the admission of refugees. The Act authorized 10,200 to 17,400 refugees to receive visas each year.
Initially, because the Act’s preference categories applied only to Eastern Hemisphere countries, natives of the Western Hemisphere could not enter the U.S. as conditional entrants. However, Congress passed legislation in 1976 and 1978 that made the status available to all refugees.
1965: Cuban Airlift
At the same time that he signed the 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would open the U.S. to all Cubans seeking refuge from Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of small boats filled with refugees began making the journey from Cuba to southern Florida.
In order to more safely and efficiently bring Cubans to the U.S., the federal government created an airlift program on Dec. 1, 1965. Under this program, Cubans already in the U.S. could apply to have relatives brought into the country. Cuban refugees were screened in Cuba, flown to Miami, and screened again in special processing centers by the INS and other inspection agencies.
By the conclusion of the airlift program in1973, over 3,000 flights had brought more than 250,000 Cuban refugees to the United States.
1966: Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966
1967: The 1967 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Refugee Protocol
The 1967 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Refugee Protocol removed the “geographical and temporal limits” of the 1951 United Nation’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This allowed the Convention to be used universally. The U.S. signed the 1967 Protocol on Nov. 1, 1968. The Protocol was the only amendment to the Convention.
1972: INS Administrative Asylum Policies
Illustration: Vietnamese refugee boy salutes American flag decorating his tent at the Vietnamese Refugee Center, Eglin Air Force base, Florida, May 20, 1975.
*USCIS History Office and Library.
1975: Indochinese Immigration and Refugee Act of 1975
The end of the Vietnam War created a large flow of refugees, many of whom had supported the U.S. war effort. As a result, approximately 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees entered the U.S. through the attorney general’s parole authority in the months immediately following the fall of Saigon. The Indochinese Immigration and Refugee Act funded their transportation and resettlement.
INS officers inspected the refugees at special reception centers where they were held until they could be resettled.
Ultimately, about 300,000 Southeast Asians entered the U.S. through the attorney general’s parole authority between 1975 and 1980.
In 1977, Congress enacted a law that allowed Southeast Asian refugees who had entered the U.S. through the attorney general’s parole authority the opportunity to become lawful permanent residents.
1977: INS Office of Refugee and Parole
1980: Refugee Act of 1980
- Removing the geographic and ideological limits on the definition of “refugee” that had been introduced by the 1965 Amendments to the INA. The new law formally adopted the United Nations’ definition.
- Providing the first statutory basis for asylum.
- Increasing the number of refugees who could be admitted annually.
- Creating the Office of Refugee Resettlement to oversee resettlement programs.
Under the Act, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets the annual number of refugee admissions and the allocation of these admissions to refugees coming from various parts of world.
1980: Mariel Boatlift
On April 20, 1980, the Castro regime announced that all Cubans wishing to go to the U.S. were free to board boats at the Port of Mariel. From April to October 1980, around 125,000 Cubans entered the U.S. Many travelled to Florida on boats organized by grassroots American supporters.
President Carter decided not to classify the Cubans as “refugees” under the newly passed Refugee Act of 1980, and instead used the Attorney General’s parole authority to allow them into the U.S. INS officers screened the Cubans in special reception centers and oversaw the long-term detention of criminals who arrived and who officials considered unsuitable to release.
In 1984, some of these Cubans were able to adjust to lawful permanent resident status under the terms of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 contained special legalization provisions which allowed others to adjust their status.
1990: The Lautenberg Amendment
Illustration: This amendment received its commonly used name in honor of one of its sponsors, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ).
*U.S. Senate Historical Office.
1997: Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA)
Under this act, certain Nicaraguans and Cubans who had fled their home countries and lived in the U.S. without permanent resident status could become lawful permanent residents, provided they had resided in the U.S. continuously and met other admissibility requirements.
The act also allowed certain individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and former Soviet bloc countries to have their deportations suspended and removals cancelled.
Illustration: Map of Central America and the Caribbean.
*Library of congress Geography and Map Division.
1998: Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act
Illustration: A Marine converses with Haitian refugees at Camp McCalla in Guantanamo bay, Cuba, on February 13, 1992.This camp served as the site of a humanitarian relief center for Haitians fleeing political and economic upheaval in their homeland.
2002-2003: Department of Homeland Security Established, USCIS, CBP, and ICE Created
Following 9/11 and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) split into three separate organizations: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
USCIS became the primary agency that oversees refugee and asylum affairs in cooperation with the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies. Within USCIS, the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate carries out refugee policies. In 2005, USCIS formed the Refugee Corps, composed of specially-trained refugee officers who travel around the world to interview refugee applicants seeking resettlement in the United States.