April 21, 2021

The History of Refugee Resettlement in the United States

The United States has a long history of welcoming refugees and continues to be one of the leading refugee resettlement countries in the world.

In 1948, Congress enacted the first refugee legislation to manage the resettlement of over 650,000 displaced Europeans in the wake of World War II.

Later laws allowed for the admission of those fleeing Communist regimes in countries like Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, and China. Come the 1960s, Cubans began fleeing to the United States en masse.

In most of these waves, refugees were assisted by private organizations within the U.S., creating the foundation for today’s public-private roles in resettlement efforts across the country.

Come the late 1970s and early 1980s, the United States government saw a need for a more standardized system as the country began taking in hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees following the Fall of Saigon. It was around this same time in the 1970s that Catholic Community Services established both the Refugee Resettlement and Refugee Foster Care programs.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was created following the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980.

This was the country’s first federal effort to resettle refugees. Prior efforts had been arranged on an as needed basis in response to mass migrations, but with the Refugee Act of 1980 came permanent procedures for vetting, admitting, and resettling refugees within the country.

The legislation also incorporated the definition of refugee as defined by the United Nations, set the number of refugees to be resettled in the country while giving the President authority to review this number annually, and authorized federal assistance for the resettlement of refugees.

The United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975. Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, annual refugee admissions have ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980 to a low of just over 11,000 in 2020.

While refugee admissions have waned in recent years, many expect to see a rise in admissions during the current presidential administration’s tenure.

The United States’ long history of welcoming refugees continues to unfold as we work diligently to provide resettlement assistance to those coming into the country in search of safety, freedom, and a fresh start.




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