Earl G. Harrison (1899-1955) was an attorney and Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who served in several US government positions, including Commissioner for Immigration and Naturalization (1942-1944) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is best known for the August 1945 report bearing his name that examined the plight of Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps in postwar Europe.
As a government official, Harrison opposed tightening immigration quotas and championed the contributions of immigrants to American society. After the war, he became a passionate advocate for improving treatment of displaced persons, especially Jewish Holocaust survivors, and for resettling them, particularly in the United States and Palestine.
Earl Harrison was born in Philadelphia in 1899 to immigrant parents from England and Northern Ireland. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1923, entered practice as a trial lawyer, and rose to partner at a Philadelphia law firm in 1932.
In June 1940, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, which required the Justice Department to register and fingerprint all 5 million non-citizens residing in the United States by the end of the year. The Attorney General appointed Harrison Commissioner of Alien Registration, and he worked to allay aliens' fear and mistrust of the registration process. By calling aliens “non-citizens,” arranging for them to register and be fingerprinted at post offices rather than police stations or courts, and treating registration as preparation for future citizenship, he transformed the process into a positive step that many aliens welcomed.
Although he initially refused appointment to be US Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) Harrison agreed to fill the position. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he oversaw processing of the largest number of citizenship applications the country had ever experienced. He and was also responsible for border security and for administering the detention camps for enemy aliens and Japanese Americans.
Harrison visited each of the 22 district offices of the INS and all ten internment camps, promoting a culture of respect for immigrants. He also opposed Congressional bills to further restrict or suspend immigration. In 1944, he left the position to become Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. That same year, President Roosevelt appointed Harrison to be US representative on the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which had been created at the Evian Conference in 1938 and worked to resettle European refugees.
In June 1945, the Department of State arranged for Harrison to conduct an inquiry into the current and future needs of displaced persons in Germany and Austria who were unable or unwilling to return to their homelands. President Truman gave Harrison's mission his stamp of approval.
Harrison's report of August 1945 harshly criticized the US and British treatment of Jewish DPs, called for major changes to Jewish DP policy, and recommended steps to resettle DPs in the United States and to increase Jewish emigration to Palestine. The US Army moved quickly to create separate camps for Jewish DPs and improve rations and medical treatment. President Truman sent the report to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, recommending that the British change their treatment of Jewish DPs and allow 100,000 to emigrate to Palestine.
The British strongly rejected the report and Truman's recommendations, leading to open disagreement between the United States and Great Britain when the report and Truman's communique became public in late 1945. The report also inspired Truman to order that DPs receive preference under existing US immigration quotas.
Publication of Harrison's report in the New York Times on September 30, 1945 stirred public debate on the resettlement of DPs. Harrison went on to lead a six-month study by the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service that in 1946 recommended establishing an international agency to deal with displaced persons and relaxing immigration restrictions throughout the world in order to resettle DPs.
In December 1946, he helped to form and took on leadership of the National Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, which worked to build public support and lobby Congress for legislation permitting DPs to immigrate to the United States. After Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, Harrison and the Citizens Committee lobbied to change it to allow more Jewish DPs to immigrate. Congress amended the Act in 1950. Of the 400,000 visas issued under the Act, 80,000 went to Jewish DPs.
Work with Civic and Social Justice Organizations
Harrison was active in many civic and social justice organizations, including as trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a local director of the ACLU and the NAACP. He testified against the University of Texas' policy of discriminating against African American applicants in the landmark civil rights case Sweatt v. Painter.
Harrison's obituary in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review noted that Harrison was “a symbol of hope and friendship throughout the world, to the aliens in this nation and to our newly made citizens, to refugees from the rough scourge of war, and to other victims of social injustice.”
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations affected Harrison’s decisions to advocate for displaced refugees?
- What responsibilities do other nations for people displaced in conflict?
- Investigate your country's policies and laws regarding immigration and refugee policy.