The line that distinguishes refugees from other immigrants is not always easy to draw. Indeed, through most of American history, the distinction was not important as a matter of immigration policy. It has, however, become extraordinarily important since World War II, determining whether particular people have been allowed into the U.S. and how they have been treated after arrival.
The idea that refugees exist and deserve special consideration for entry into the U.S. is a simple one, but its incorporation into U.S. law has been a long, slow process. Perhaps the most important initial policy debate involved the failed attempt to gain additional admissions of Jewish refugees both before and during World War II. The failure to aid fleeing Jews, and indeed the creation of what David Wyman has called “paper walls” to keep them out, has been a shadow over American refugee policy ever since.
The first significant refugee legislation passed by the U.S. Congress came only after the end of World War II. The presence of numerous displaced persons (DPs) stranded in refugee camps or otherwise requiring international assistance—an estimated 844,000 in 1946—generated a series of measures to settle those people in different countries.
By the end of the 1970s, this refugee program had resulted in the admission of about 1.5 million people. Although those who arrived were considered refugees, they actually came in under a variety of legal statuses authorized by ad hoc legislation and broad use of the attorney general's authority to “parole” people into the U.S. outside of more formal immigration channels. For example, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, under which most Cubans in the U.S. gained permanent legal status, did not even use the word “refugee.”
The Refugee Act of 1980 broadened the definition of “refugee,” tightened the administration of the program, and aimed to reduce the number of refugees as well. The standard account of refugee economic success—that refugees were not only deserving as refugees but successful as immigrants—came under increasing scrutiny. Refugee advocates and program personnel had also long argued for administrative improvements to the U.S. refugee program. These concerns were addressed in the Refugee Act of 1980, which accepted the UN refugee definition, clarified program responsibilities, and legislated a wide range of other program adjustments.