Refugee Relief Act

The U.S. government created a means of admitting displaced persons outside the national quota system on an emergency basis. The law responded to the growing international refugee crisis—begun by World War II and continued by conditions in Palestine and Korea—that would become one of the defining problems of the late twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The events of World War II and its immediate aftermath left millions of people displaced from their homelands. Included among those who had been made homeless by the destruction were Jewish survivors of the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust and increasing numbers of political refugees who fled their homelands as communist governments took control in Eastern Europe. In the United States, from the close of World War II well into the 1950’s, a debate raged about how restrictive or generous U.S. immigration and asylum law should be in view of the nation’s own interests and the larger humanitarian imperatives. Refugee Relief Act (1953)
Refugees;U.S. immigration policy
Immigration;United States
[kw]Refugee Relief Act (Aug. 7, 1953)
[kw]Relief Act, Refugee (Aug. 7, 1953)
[kw]Act, Refugee Relief (Aug. 7, 1953)
Refugee Relief Act (1953)
Refugees;U.S. immigration policy
Immigration;United States
[g]North America;Aug. 7, 1953: Refugee Relief Act[04210]
[g]United States;Aug. 7, 1953: Refugee Relief Act[04210]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 7, 1953: Refugee Relief Act[04210]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Aug. 7, 1953: Refugee Relief Act[04210]
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;immigration policy
Harrison, Earl Grant
McCarran, Patrick Anthony
Roosevelt, Eleanor
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;immigration policy

Since 1924, U.S. immigration law had been based on a quota system, which was viewed as highly discriminatory against various countries and peoples. Under the pressures of war, however, Congress had allowed temporary immigration to help labor-starved industry. With China as one of the main U.S. allies in the Pacific war, Congress revoked the ban on Chinese immigration in 1943; in 1945, it approved the War Brides Act, which permitted the entry of the alien spouses and children of members of the U.S. armed forces. President Harry S. Truman approved the admission of about forty thousand wartime refugees after the war and urged Congress to adopt less restrictive legislation that would permit the resettlement of larger numbers of displaced persons (DPs).

Congress felt pressure to act, not only from the president but also from private charitable agencies that sought to liberalize admission policies in favor of DPs in Europe and elsewhere. Two Jewish aid agencies, the American Council on Judaism American Council on Judaism (ACJ) and the American Jewish Committee American Jewish Committee (AJC), joined forces with numerous Christian and other non-Jewish agencies to form the Citizens’ Committee on Displaced Persons Citizens’ Committee on Displaced Persons[Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons] . This new group was headed by Earl Grant Harrison and included on its board of directors many prominent U.S. citizens, among them Eleanor Roosevelt. The committee heavily lobbied the predominantly restrictionist Congress and supported legislation calling for the admission of 400,000 DPs.

A long and rancorous debate followed, which produced a substantially watered-down bill known as the Displaced Persons Act Displaced Persons Act (1948) of 1948. This act permitted 202,000 admission slots for DPs in Europe who feared to return to communist-held countries. While retaining the immigration quotas of previous years, the act allowed countries to borrow against future years’ quotas to accommodate DPs with immediate needs. It only permitted entry of people displaced prior to April 21, 1947, in the Allied occupied zones of Germany and Austria who were registered with the International Refugee Organization International Refugee Organization (IRO) and who were not communists. It required that the DPs be guaranteed employment by U.S. charitable agencies or other sponsors, and it gave preference to DPs with professional skills. While criticizing its discriminatory features, Truman signed the legislation, which also established the Displaced Persons Commission Displaced Persons Commission .

Efforts by the Citizens’ Committee on Displaced Persons and others to liberalize the Displaced Persons Act continued, as events in Europe and the deepening of the Cold War led to a climate more supportive of DP resettlement. Although delayed by Senator Patrick Anthony McCarran of Nevada, amendments eventually passed by Congress expanded the numbers of admission slots to 341,000 and relaxed the cutoff dates for eligibility and entry into the United States. When the Displaced Persons Act expired on December 31, 1951, President Truman relied on the regular immigration quotas and on the U.S. Escapee Program, established under the authority of the 1951 Mutual Security Act Mutual Security Act (1951) , to provide asylum in the United States to political refugees from communism.

Truman also established the Commission on Immigration and Naturalization Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, U.S. , which held hearings that demonstrated considerable support for liberalized admission of refugees from communism. Even as the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act Immigration and Nationality Act (1952) , sponsored by Senator McCarran (and therefore often called the McCarran-Walter Act McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act] ), reemphasized the restrictive quota system for regular immigration, consensus was building to place emergency refugee admissions outside the regular immigration quota system. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953, also sometimes referred to as the Church bill because of the strong support it received from religious refugee assistance agencies, was the result of this ongoing debate about how to restructure U.S. immigration and refugee policy.

The Refugee Relief Act was signed into law on August 7. It made 209,000 special immigrant visas available to refugees and other special categories of persons. These were not tied in any way to the regular immigration quotas for countries under the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. This was seen as a major reform by private humanitarian organizations. In the years that followed, the 1958 act enabled the emergency entry of refugees from communism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, invoked the act just before it was to expire, to provide emergency resettlement opportunities for Hungarian refugees in the waning months of 1956.

Eisenhower also took advantage of his parole power, as acknowledged in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act and earlier immigration legislation, to provide asylum opportunities for Hungarian refugees. The United States eventually accepted more than thirty-two thousand Hungarians. Thus, through the provisions of the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, subsequent ad hoc emergency refugee legislation, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the U.S. government coped with refugee admissions until 1980, when Congress passed the more comprehensive and progressive Migration and Refugee Act.


The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 was one brief but essential mechanism by which the U.S. government sought to fulfill humanitarian and political objectives relating to refugees. It represented an improvement on the Displaced Persons Act, although that much-maligned piece of legislation eventually led to the resettlement of about four hundred thousand persons to the United States, by far the single largest number of European refugees resettled by any country in the immediate postwar era. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 also represented a bridge to later legislation, such as the Migration and Refugee Act of 1980, by treating emergency refugee admission outside the context of regular immigration quotas. It also represented the mistaken belief in the early 1950’s that refugee situations were temporary and amenable to ad hoc solutions.

Still, the United States and other Western nations during the early 1950’s established the groundwork for more stable legal and institutional mechanisms for dealing with refugee situations. The United States supported the creation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1943 and the IRO in 1947 to cope with the needs of displaced persons and refugees in postwar Europe. Both were viewed as temporary agencies, as were the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), which began operations in 1952. In time, however, these bodies developed into permanent features of the international humanitarian landscape with the support of later U.S. administrations.

The building of both legal and institutional mechanisms for coping with humanitarian problems was often highly controversial, heavily steeped in political motivation, and shortsighted. As measured in the huge numbers of persons assisted and protected over the years, however, the efforts are viewed by many as precious if difficult ones, of which the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 were imperfect but necessary components. Refugee Relief Act (1953)
Refugees;U.S. immigration policy
Immigration;United States

Further Reading

  • Carlin, James L. The Refugee Connection: A Lifetime of Running a Lifeline. New York: Macmillan, 1989. A fascinating autobiographical account of the development of post-World War II displaced persons and refugee policy.
  • Fuchs, Lawrence H. “Immigration, Pluralism, and Public Policy: The Challenge of the Pluribus to the Unum.” In U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policy: Global and Domestic Issues, edited by Mary M. Kritz. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1982. Explores the history of U.S. immigration, public attitudes, and governmental policies. Shows how World War II and the displaced persons problem served as a watershed for the emergence of greater tolerance of pluralism and diversity.
  • Loescher, Gil, and John A. Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door, 1945 to Present. New York: Free Press, 1986. The first two chapters of this comprehensive analysis of U.S. immigration and refugee policy address the Displaced Persons and Refugee Relief Acts.
  • Martin, David A. The United States Refugee Admissions Program: Reforms for a New Era of Refugee Resettlement. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2005. Evaluates the state of U.S. refugee policy in the early twenty-first century and proposes revisions to that policy designed to respond to the evolution of the international refugee situation. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Nichols, J. Bruce. The Uneasy Alliance: Religion, Refugee Work, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A detailed account of the relations between private voluntary organizations and the U.S. government in the fields of humanitarian aid, immigration, and refugee policy. See especially chapter 5.
  • Sanders, Ronald. Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Immigration. New York: Schocken Books, 1988. This detailed historical account briefly examines the impact of U.S. refugee acts on Jewish immigration.
  • Zucker, Norman L., and Naomi Flink Zucker. The Guarded Gate: The Reality of American Refugee Policy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987. Focuses mainly on refugee and asylum policy after the passage of the 1980 Migration and Refugee Act, but situates this discussion against developments after World War II.

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