Refugee Timeline

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

DOT Logo

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.

Illustration: Seal of the Department of the Treasury, under which the first Bureau of Immigration resided.

1910-1920: The Mexican Revolution

Refugees during the Mexican Revolution, going to Marfa, Texas after the Battle of Ojinga which took place January 1-4, 1914. The violence and political unrest caused by the Mexican Revolution drove thousands of Mexican refugees north across the U.S.-Mexico border. While some refugees were denied entry under the general immigration laws, most refugees were inspected and admitted for permanent residence by Immigration Bureau officers, who allowed for “humane considerations” when interpreting these laws.

Illustration:Refugees during the Mexican Revolution, going to Marfa, Texas after the Battle of Ojinga which took place January 1-4, 1914.
*Library of Congress/ Flickr Commons project, 2010.

1917: The Immigration Act of 1917

This Political cartoon by Raymond O. Evans originally appeared in the magazine Puck in March 1916.  It portrays the literacy test eventually introduced by the Immigration Act of 1917 as a wall preventing many immigrants from entering the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1917 required all immigrants aged 16 years and older to demonstrate they could read. However, Congress exempted from this new literacy requirement all those seeking admission to the United States to avoid religious persecution.

Illustration:This Political cartoon by Raymond O. Evans originally appeared in the magazine Puck in March 1916.  It portrays the literacy test eventually introduced by the Immigration Act of 1917 as a wall preventing many immigrants from entering the U.S.
*Library of Congress.

1921-1924: The Quota Acts

This 1921 cartoon interpreted the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 as a funnel across the Atlantic Ocean that reduced the stream of immigrants trying to enter the U.S. It was published in The Literary Digest on May 7, 1921 and originally drawn for the Providence Evening Bulletin. 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.

Illustration:This 1921 cartoon interpreted the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 as a funnel across the Atlantic Ocean that reduced the stream of immigrants trying to enter the U.S. It was published in The Literary Digest on May 7, 1921 and originally drawn for the Providence Evening Bulletin. 
*Library of Congress. 

1939-1945: World War II

Persecuted prisoners who survived the Holocaust, such as these starved survivors photographed in the Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria, represented some of the most vulnerable groups of refugees after World War II.The Nazi persecution of Jews and other minorities during the 1930s, World War II, and the Holocaust created a massive global refugee crisis. More people became refugees than many nations could or would accept into their populations.

Illustration: Persecuted prisoners who survived the Holocaust, such as these starved survivors photographed in the Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria, represented some of the most vulnerable groups of refugees after World War II.
*National Archives.

1945: The United Nations Established

United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Director General Fiorello LaGuardia delivers a speech at the Berlin-Schlachtensee displaced persons camp, Berlin, 1946. 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.

Illustration:United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Director General Fiorello LaGuardia delivers a speech at the Berlin-Schlachtensee displaced persons camp, Berlin, 1946.
*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

1945: Presidential Directive on Displaced Persons

Jewish Displaced Persons wash up in a pool at a displaced persons camp near Hagenow, Germany, May 30, 1945. 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.

Illustration: Jewish Displaced Persons wash up in a pool at a displaced persons camp near Hagenow, Germany, May 30, 1945.
*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

1948: Displaced Persons Act of 1948

Displaced persons seeking to immigrate to the U.S. line the decks of the General Black as it leaves the port of Bremerhaven, October 1948. Nicknamed the "Ship to Freedom" by its passengers, it brought 813 European Displaced Persons from eleven nations to the U.S. the provisions of the newly enacted Displaced Persons' Act, the first group allowed to enter under the new quota. 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.

Illustration: Displaced persons seeking to immigrate to the U.S. line the decks of the General Black as it leaves the port of Bremerhaven, October 1948. Nicknamed the "Ship to Freedom" by its passengers, it brought 813 European Displaced Persons from eleven nations to the U.S. the provisions of the newly enacted Displaced Persons' Act, the first group allowed to enter under the new quota.
*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

1950-1951: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

The Headquarters of the United Nations, located in New York City, opened in 1952, one year after the UNHCR went into effect. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. In response to the refugee crisis after World War II, in 1950 the United Nations created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees acts as the guardian of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines the legal protections for refugees. Though the U.S. did not sign the 1951 Convention, the U.S. later signed the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which broadened the scope of the Convention.

Illustration: The Headquarters of the United Nations, located in New York City, opened in 1952, one year after the UNHCR went into effect.
*Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.

1952: Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)

A refugee family from Ching Pung Men near Masan, who lived in a refugee camp at Changseung-po, Korea. United Nations. October 1950. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) reorganized and placed immigration and nationality laws under the same statute for the first time. Congress passed the INA over President Truman’s veto.  It maintained the quota system and lacked refugee-specific provisions. As a result, most refugees were later admitted under ad hoc programs outside of the quota system.

Illustration: A refugee family from Ching Pung Men near Masan, who lived in a refugee camp at Changseung-po, Korea. United Nations. October 1950.
*National Archives

1953: Refugee Relief Act of 1953

The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 authorized the issuance of nearly 200,000 special non-quota immigrant visas to refugees and escapees from communist countries, which were issued between 1953and 1956. Among these were 2,000 visas reserved for Chinese refugees, at a time when the annual immigrant quota for that nation was 105.The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 authorized nearly 200,000 special non-quota immigrant visas for refugees and escapees from communist countries. The U.S. issued these visas between 1953 and 1956. Chinese refugees received 2,000 visas under this program, at a time when the annual immigrant quota for China was 105.

Illustration: Text from the Refugee Relief Act of 1953.

1956-1957: Hungarian Escapee Program

A group of Hungarian refugees leaving the Camp Kilmer Reception Center in New Jersey in 1956.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][5] 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.

Illustration: A group of Hungarian refugees leaving the Camp Kilmer Reception Center in New Jersey in 1956.
*USCIS History Library

1952: Azorean Refugee Act of 1958

Map of the Azores Islands. In 1958, Congress passed the Azores Refugee Act which authorized 2,000 special non-quota immigrant visas for victims of the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that struck the Island of Fayal in 1957. This Act marked the first time Congress passed legislation specifically for people seeking shelter in the U.S. after a natural disaster.

Illustration: Map of the Azores Islands.
*Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

1959-1960: Fair Share Refugee Act of July 14, 1960

Armenian refugees from Lebanon are greeted in their native tongue by a Port Receptionist. To raise awareness of the continuing global refugee problem, the United Nations designated the year 1959-1960 as World Refugee Year. In recognition, Congress passed the Fair Share Refugee Act of July 14, 1960, which allowed nearly 5,000 refugees to enter the U.S. under the attorney general’s parole authority. The law also provided the means for these refugees to become lawful permanent residents after two years in the U.S.

Illustration: Armenian refugees from Lebanon are greeted in their native tongue by a Port Receptionist.
*Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1961.

1959-1962: Cuban Refugees

Cuban refugees arriving in the United States, 1962. 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.

Illustration: Cuban refugees arriving in the United States, 1962.
*State Library & Archives of Florida.

1962: Hong Kong Parole Program

Wong Yick Yuen family, last group of Hong Kong parolees in fiscal year 1963. USCIS History Office and Library. Wong Yick Yuen family, last group of Hong Kong parolees in fiscal year 1963. 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.

Illustration: Wong Yick Yuen family, last group of Hong Kong parolees in fiscal year 1963. USCIS History Office and Library. Wong Yick Yuen family, last group of Hong Kong parolees in fiscal year 1963.
*USCIS History Office and Library.

1962: Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962

A young Hungarian refugee is pictured in France, circa 1948-1967. 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.

Illustration: A young Hungarian refugee is pictured in France, circa 1948-1967.
*National Archives

1965: The 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson, Muriel Humphrey, Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and others look on. 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.

Illustration: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson, Muriel Humphrey, Sen. Edward (Ted) Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and others look on.
*LBJ Presidential Library.

1965: Cuban Airlift

A group of young Cuban refugees entering the U.S. as part of the Cuban airlift arrive in Miami in 1967.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.

Illustration: A group of young Cuban refugees entering the U.S. as part of the Cuban airlift arrive in Miami in 1967.
*USCIS History Library.

1966: Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966

Information counter and waiting room at the Cuban Adjustment Center, Miami. Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act of November 2, 1966, in reaction to the influx of Cubans brought by the airlift program. This Act allowed Cuban refugees who had entered the U.S. under the attorney general’s parole authority to become lawful permanent residents after two years.

Illustration: Information counter and waiting room at the Cuban Adjustment Center, Miami.
 *Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1967.

1967: The 1967 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Refugee Protocol

A pallet of kitchen supplies, donated by the UNHCR for refugees in Sarajevo, September 18, 1996.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.

Illustration: A pallet of kitchen supplies, donated by the UNHCR for refugees in Sarajevo, September 18, 1996.
*National Archives.

1972: INS Administrative Asylum Policies

Vietnamese refugee boy salutes American flag decorating his tent at the Vietnamese Refugee Center, Eglin Air Force base, Florida, May 20, 1975. The INS began granting asylum to aliens already in the U.S. as a way to uphold the principle of asylum in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Refugee Protocol and Convention and to ensure that no refugees were returned to conditions of persecution. Under these polices, INS officials could use existing procedures such as parole, stays of deportation, and adjustment of status to allow aliens who feared persecution in their homeland to remain in the country.

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

Vietnamese families sponsored by a Catholic mission, Camp Pendleton, CA 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.

Illustration: Vietnamese families sponsored by a Catholic mission, Camp Pendleton, CA 1975.
*USCIS History Library.

1977: INS Office of Refugee and Parole

Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) seal.In 1977, the INS created a special Office of Refugee and Parole to address global refugee crises and implement refugee policies.

Illustration: Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) seal.


 

1980: Refugee Act of 1980

A life boat from the USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC 19) tows a Vietnamese fishing boat to the amphibious command ship. 35 Vietnamese refugees were rescued 350 miles north of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea, May 15, 1984. Over a decade after the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol and in the midst of the continuing influx of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia after the Vietnam War, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. The Act created a uniform and comprehensive policy to proactively address refugee admissions by:
  • 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.

Illustration: A life boat from the USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC 19) tows a Vietnamese fishing boat to the amphibious command ship. 35 Vietnamese refugees were rescued 350 miles north of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea, May 15, 1984.
*National Archives.

1980: Mariel Boatlift

A Mariel boatlift vessel, crowded with Cuban refugees, approaches Key West escorted by a U.S. ship in 1980. 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.

Illustration: A Mariel boatlift vessel, crowded with Cuban refugees, approaches Key West escorted by a U.S. ship in 1980.
*USCIS History Library

1990: The Lautenberg Amendment

This amendment received its commonly used name in honor of one of its sponsors, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ). In 1990, the Lautenberg Amendment established a reduced evidentiary burden for applications for refugee status from certain categories of people, including Jews and some Christian minorities from the Former Soviet Union, as well as some individuals from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In 2004, the Specter Amendment added certain Iranian religious minorities. Because the language of the Lautenberg Amendment is not permanent, it must be extended through legislation each fiscal year.

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)

Map of Central America and the Caribbean. 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

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. As a response to criticisms that the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act unfairly avoided addressing similar issues facing Haitian refugees, Congress passed the Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act. This act gave Haitian asylees the same ability to adjust to lawful permanent resident status as the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act granted to certain Central Americans.

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.
*National Archives.

2002-2003: Department of Homeland Security Established, USCIS, CBP, and ICE Created

Seal of the Department of Homeland Security. 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.  

Illustration: Seal of the Department of Homeland Security.

 

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