Report

5 Times the U.S. Looked at a Refugee Crisis — and Looked Away

As the United States opens its gates to more asylum seekers, it’s worth remembering the times the U.S. stumbled on helping those in need.

NOGALES, AZ - JUNE 18:  Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona.  Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images)
NOGALES, AZ - JUNE 18: Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, the Obama administration announced plans to up the total number of refugees admitted to the United States from 70,000 to 85,000 by next year, and 100,000 by 2017. Still, there’s no telling how many of these will be Syrian or whether there will be a significant increase from the early September proposal to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year — an offer which many saw as paltry. David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, writing in Tuesday’s New York Times, argued that the number still falls far short of meeting demand — by some estimates, 4 million refugees from Syria alone have already been displaced. (The administration has not stated how many of the anticipated refugees will be Syrian.) As Miliband points out, the city of Munich alone — population 1.4 million — took in 25,000 over the course of one weekend.

“The mismatch between need and response is all the more striking since the United States has given a home to some three million refugees since 1975,” Miliband wrote. This may be. But the United States — home of the tired, poor, huddled masses — has a track record with refugees that has at times looked less than stellar.

Here are five times the United States has stumbled when it came to taking in those in need:

World War II, 1938 – 1943

In 1938, around 300,000 Germans — mostly Jewish refugees — applied for visas to move to the United States. Just 20,000 of these applications were approved, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Immigration laws at the time set strict quotas regulating the number of immigrants who could come from each country, and visa requirements, which included having two sponsors in the United States who were citizens or permanent residents, were often prohibitive. In 1940, the chances of getting a visa diminished even further after American consuls were ordered to delay applications for reasons of national security. In one particularly egregious example, a ship called the St. Louis tried to sail to U.S. waters after being turned away by Cuba; the Jewish refugees on board were eventually sent back to Europe, where, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, only 59 percent are known to have survived.

Then-Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins famously advocated for the United States to remove barriers to entry for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt stuck to the quotas. As one 2001 paper put it, Roosevelt’s intractability was due to “his domestic political problems, America’s economic difficulties, the anti-alien climate in Congress, and popular opposition” to an influx of Jewish refugees.

Salvadoran Civil War, 1980s

During the 1980s, as a bloody civil war raged in El Salvador, most refugees who managed to reach the United States and applied for asylum were deported back to El Salvador — in many cases, to their deaths.

Back home, Salvadorans faced a war between leftist guerillas and a U.S.-backed army, which killed and disappeared more than 30,000 people according to a 2002 BBC article. In total, 75,000 peopled were killed during the war and over a million displaced. By 1983, just three years into the war, the number of Salvadorans in the United States had risen from 95,000 to 500,000. Another 334,000 entered between 1985 and 1990. However, the vast majority were undocumented. According to the Migration Policy Institute, just two percent of Salvadorans who applied were granted asylum status, though the approval rates rose to 25 percent after a group of religious organizations and refugee advocacy groups won a court case against the U.S. government 1991.

The U.S. government claimed that those fleeing the war were economic migrantsOthers may not have been deported, but were sent back nonetheless: “countless Salvadorans during the period in question were pressured into ‘voluntary’ return,” Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications and public affairs for the Migration Policy Institute, told Foreign Policy by email.

Haitian Dictatorship and Military Rule, 1981 – 1994

Haitians seeking to escape a bloody dictatorship in leaky homemade boats were met at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, who captured them and brought them back to Haiti. Through successive administrations, the U.S. government considered Haitians to be exceptions to the Refugee Act of 1980, as long as they were caught while in the water and not on U.S. soil. While the U.S. government argued both that Haitians were economic migrants and that they were saving the lives of the Haitians who risked death at sea, many, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, accused them of being motivated by racism. This charge seemed particularly apropos when Haitian and Cuban refugees traveling in the same boat were treated differently. “Upon arrival, the Cubans were shuttled off to shelter by the Immigration and Naturalization Service while the Haitians were sent to detention facilities,” wrote Phillip W.d. Martin, the national projects director for Oxfam America, in 1994.

Back at home, Haitians faced first the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and later the brutal military rule of Raoul Cédras. According to the Center for Justice and Accountability website, paramilitaries under Cédras were so brutal they displayed the scalps and faces of murdered political opponents. After facing criticism for the interdiction-at-sea program, first George H.W. Bush and later Bill Clinton briefly attempted to use camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to house the refugees. In both cases, the camps quickly overflowed.

According to a paper by Patrick Gavigan, who served as a consultant to the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR), 433 boats were intercepted between 1981 and 1991, and 25,551 refugees returned to Haiti. Within the first six months of the 1991 coup that unseated democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 38,000 more were captured at sea and returned to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Central American Drug Violence, 2014 – 2015

When tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors showed up at the U.S. border in 2014, the Obama administration labeled them an immigration crisis, and included, as part of its response, stepped-up immigration controls in both Mexico and at the U.S. border. Yet, at home, many of these children faced death at the hands of drug dealers and gangs, causing experts to argue that they ought to be treated as refugees.

Children who arrived with parents were housed in detention centers across the Southwest and in Pennsylvania. Mothers applying for asylum often had to recount tales of abuse and sexual violence in front of their children. This July, a judge ruled these detention centers illegal and ordered the release of mothers and children. The government will appeal. 

Iraq and Afghan Wars, 2001 – Present

Though thousands of Iraqis and Afghans were resettled in the United States after U.S.-led wars in the region, translators, soldiers, and other professionals who worked with the U.S. Army have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years. The Special Immigrant Visa program was supposed to provide an easy route to life in the United States, but, according to a Congressional report, only 22 percent of available visas have been issued to Iraqis and just 12 percent to Afghans. Those who worked with the United States are currently being targeted by the Islamic State. Many have gone into hiding after attempts on their lives. Nine Iraqis who worked for the United States and have faced ongoing threats are suing the U.S. government over the delay.

The hurdles they face are varied: Interviews for visa applications must be conducted in Baghdad, though for some it is not safe to travel there. If children of applicants are over 21, they are not considered dependents and therefore not eligible for visas.

Even those who do manage to reach the United States receive little support, often facing unemployment and homelessness. In 2014, Whitney Kassel, writing in FP, argued that “these refugees come to feel they would have been better off taking their chances at home than living in poverty and shame in the States.”

* * *

The United States prides itself on being a country that welcomes people in need. But as the Obama administration weighs its options in responding to the current crisis, it is worth reflecting on the times the United States found itself face-to-face with those who required help — and looked away.

Photo credit: Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images 

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert
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