United States Immigration and Refugee Law, 1921–1980

Before World War II and the Holocaust, American law made very little distinction between refugees forced to flee their countries due to persecution, and immigrants seeking a better life. After the war, the United States and the international community used a series of directives, organizations, and laws to help displaced European refugees, including Holocaust survivors, immigrate to new countries. Although refugees gained legal status under postwar international law, the scope of these laws were narrow and limited at first, before expanding to their current form.

Key Facts

  • 1

    In 1921 and 1924, the US Congress passed immigration laws that severely limited the number and “national origin” of new immigrants. These laws did not change in the 1930s, as desperate Jewish refugees attempted to immigrate from Nazi Germany.

  • 2

    After World War II, the American people continued to oppose increased immigration. With President Truman’s encouragement, Congress passed limited legislation to aid European displaced persons, including Holocaust survivors.

  • 3

    The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention granted legal protection to refugees but placed limitations on qualifying for refugee status. The United States did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, but did sign the 1967 United Nations Refugee Protocol, which removed those geographical and time limitations.

1921: Emergency Quota Act and Failed Refugee Provision

After World War I, America became an isolationist nation. In December 1920, in the context of this isolationism, the international influenza pandemic, and a postwar economic recession, the US House of Representatives voted to end all immigration to the United States for one year. The vote was bipartisan and was not close (293-41). The Senate did not believe the emergency warranted this dramatic step but was willing to significantly restrict the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States.

Congress began negotiating a new immigration bill, which would set quotas for the first time on the number of immigrants from each country who could enter the United States. At the last minute, the Senate rejected the House’s proposed amendment, which would have made a distinction between immigrants and refugees by exempting immigrants who could prove they were escaping political or racial persecution. Had this amendment been enacted, American response to the refugee crisis in the 1930s may have been quite different.

On May 19, 1921, President Warren Harding signed the Quota Act of 1921 (also known as the “Emergency Quota Act”). The 1921 quotas were enforced on Ellis Island, not at US consulates abroad. State Department officials could advise a potential immigrant on the probability that he/she would be allowed to enter due to health or economic status, but entry decisions were made upon disembarking in the United States. This led to so-called “midnight races,” where passenger ships raced to reach the United States as soon as possible at the beginning of each month, when new portions of the quota were opened. Ships that arrived at 11 p.m. on August 31, for instance, could be fined for bringing passengers from countries where the quota had already been filled; one hour later, on September 1, the passengers could enter under newly opened quota slots.

1924: Johnson-Reed Act

On May 24, 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act or the National Origins Act. The act was meant to solve the “midnight races” problem and establish a more permanent immigration law. It created new quotas, which heavily favored England and northern Europe and set much lower quotas for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who had made up the majority of more recent immigration. The new law reflected anti-Catholic, antisemitic sentiment in the country. The 1924 law capped quota immigration at 164,667 people per year. Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, needed for US labor, were “non-quota” arrivals, exempted from the quota system.

The Johnson-Reed Act also mandated that potential immigrants present their paperwork and receive US immigration visas at consulates abroad, prior to leaving for the United States. The State Department, therefore, became responsible for enforcing the quota law, and “midnight races” ended.

In 1929, immigration was further limited to a total of 153,879 and the new quotas were re-calculated using complicated math based on the existing “national origins” of the population as reflected in the 1920 census and the new immigration cap. As a result, the quota for the British Isles rose from 34,007 to 65,721, while the quota for Germany fell significantly, from 51,227 to 25,957. Other countries fared worse: Poland, with a prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million, had a quota of 6,524, and Romania, with a Jewish population of nearly a million, had a quota of 377.

1930s: Attempts to Change Immigration Law

In the late 1930s, Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe were consistently referred to as “refugees.” However, this term had no legal meaning under US law, save for theoretically exempting these immigrants from having to pass a literacy test.

Throughout the 1930s, most Americans opposed changing or adjusting the Johnson-Reed Act, fearing that immigrants, including those fleeing persecution, would compete for scarce jobs and burden public services in the midst of the Great Depression. (Later on, they would see them as a potential national security risk.) Consistent with overall anti-immigrant sentiments in the country, the State Department viewed the quotas as limits, rather than goals, and did not seek to fill the quotas. Between 1933 and 1941, for example, roughly 118,000 German quota slots that could have been used went unfilled.

After Germany’s annexation of Austria and with the advice of the State Department, a group of Jewish congressmen met and decided not to introduce any new legislation to expand immigration to aid Jewish refugees. Public anti-immigration sentiment remained strong—in May 1938, only 23% of Americans were in favor of the immigration of German refugees—and these congressmen believed that legislation reducing immigration would prevail if the subject came up for debate. Several bills were introduced to aid refugees; many more were introduced to curb or end immigration. None passed.

The only significant attempt to pass a law to aid refugees came in 1939, when Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would allow 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 into the country over two years outside of the immigration quotas. The legislation never made out of committee for a vote.

1939–1941: Non-Legislative State Department Restrictions

After World War II began in 1939, the State Department cautioned consular officials to exercise particular care in screening applicants: "In view of the international situation, it is essential that all aliens seeking admission into the United States, including both immigrants and nonimmigrants be examined with the greatest care.” Visa applicants were required to submit moral affidavits, attesting to their identities and good conduct, from several responsible disinterested persons, in addition to financial affidavits.

Fears of infiltration and espionage led to additional restrictions on visa applicants. On June 5, 1941, diplomats abroad were cautioned that visas would soon be denied to applicants with close relatives remaining in German-occupied countries. American officials were concerned that unfriendly governments would use family members as hostages or bargaining chips to coerce immigrants to commit acts of sabotage or espionage.

On July 1, 1941, the same day that the new “relatives rule” went into effect, the State Department centralized all alien visa control in Washington. Visa applications were placed before an interdepartmental review committee consisting of representatives of the Visa Division, Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI, Military Intelligence Division of the War Department, and the Navy Department’s Office of Naval Intelligence. At this time, documentary requirements were also increased: applicants now needed two financial affidavits instead of one.

US consulates in Nazi-occupied territory shut down in July 1941. (This happened just as the systematic, mass murder of the Jews began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union.) For most Jewish refugees, the new paperwork combined with the lack of access to American diplomats ended their hope of immigration to the United States.

1945: Truman Directive

Allied victory brought an end to Nazi terror in Europe in May 1945, and to the war in the Pacific in August. Six million European Jews had been murdered. Hundreds of thousands of liberated Jews, suffering from starvation and disease emerged from concentration camps, hiding places, and places of temporary refuge to discover a world which still seemed to have no place for them. Visual evidence of the Holocaust, shown in popular magazines, newspapers and movie theater newsreels, did not change Americans’ minds towards immigration or refugees. In a December 1945 Gallup poll, only 5% of Americans were willing to accept more European immigrants than the nation had prior to the war.

President Harry S. Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward displaced persons (DPs). Faced with Congressional inaction, he issued a statement, known as the "Truman Directive," on December 22, 1945, announcing that DPs would be granted priority for US visas within the existing quota system. While overall immigration into the United States did not increase, between 35,000–40,000 DPs, most of whom were Jewish, entered the United States between December 22, 1945, and July 1, 1948, under provisions of the Truman Directive.

1946–1952: The International Refugee Organization (IRO)

The International Refugee Organization (IRO), a temporary specialized agency of the newly established United Nations, was created in December 1946 to replace the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGC), which had originally been created during the Evian Conference in 1938.

The IRO constitution stated that “refugees and displaced persons constitute an urgent problem which is international in scope and character” and while displaced persons should be returned home, refugees should be assisted by international action. Germany and Japan were to pay for the resettlement of displaced persons from the countries they formerly occupied. The IRO also operated the International Tracing Service whose purpose was to help survivors find their families and learn the fate of loved ones.

Although the IRO constitution was drawn up in December 1946, the organization did not begin work until 1948, when the nations paying the majority of the IRO’s expenses had ratified the constitution. The United States, a signatory along with 54 other nations, supplied 40% of the IRO’s administrative expenses and 46% of its operational expenses, and the IRO’s Director-General was always an American citizen.

The IRO ceased operations on January 31, 1952, as most of its work had been taken over by other organizations, most significantly the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, an office created in 1951.

1948: Displaced Persons Act

Three years after the end of the war, there were still a substantial number of displaced persons in Europe. They included Jews who had survived the Holocaust and many others who were fleeing the Soviet control. By June 1948 Truman had pushed for some sort of legislation on behalf of displaced persons for at least eighteen months. In his 1947 State of the Union, Truman stated, “We are dealing with a human problem, a world tragedy.” In his 1948 State of the Union, he argued for “suitable legislation at once so that this nation may do its share in caring for homeless and suffering refugees of all faiths. I believe the admission of these persons will add to the strength and energy of the nation.” Still, Congress delayed action.

Congress finally passed a Displaced Persons Act only reluctantly, and without public hearings. The Senate passed a bill on June 2, 1948, the House passed another on June 11, and a hurried compromise ensued, finally reaching the president on the final day of the congressional session. Truman, disappointed by the limited reach of the act, said that he would have vetoed it had Congress been in session, but signed the act so there would be some legislation to aid displaced persons, rather than none.

The Act, which authorized 200,000 displaced persons to enter the United States, “mortgaged” the still-extant 1924 immigration quotas, allowing up to 50% of future quota spaces to be used on behalf of displaced persons, with few exceptions. Truman particularly criticized the fact that the bill restricted eligibility to people who had entered Germany, Austria, or Italy prior to December 22, 1945, effectively discriminating against Jewish displaced persons, many of whom had been in the Soviet zone of occupation and only traveled to western Europe later. 

“The bill,” Truman stated, “reflects a singular lack of confidence by the Congress in the capacity and willingness of the people of the United States to extend a welcoming hand to the prospective immigrants.”

Public opinion was more in line with Congress than Truman: an April 1948 poll showed that 53% of Americans disapproved of the plan to allow 200,000 displaced persons to enter, compared with 40% who approved. Polling also showed that more Americans supported immigration limits on Jewish DPs than on Germans who had left their homes fleeing Soviet occupation.

In 1950, Congress amended the Displaced Persons Act, an amendment Truman signed “with very great pleasure.” The Act authorized a total of 400,744 visas for displaced persons (of which 172,230 had been issued in the previous two years) and removed the geographical and chronological limits which had discriminated against Jewish DPs. Approximately 80,000 Jewish DPs entered the United States between 1948 and 1952 under the Displaced Persons Act.

1951: United Nations Refugee Convention

In 1951, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which has been signed by 145 nations. The United States did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. This was the first time refugees gained distinct legal status under international law. Under this international treaty, a refugee was defined as "a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

The 1951 Convention defines the obligations of signatory nations to refugees, and vice versa. Refugees are granted the right to work, to housing, to education, to public assistance, to freedom of movement within the territory, and cannot be punished for illegal entry. Under Article 33, known as the “non-refoulement” provision, refugees cannot be returned against their will to a place in which they would be endangered. In exchange, refugees must abide by the laws and regulations of the country of asylum. Those who have committed crimes against peace, war crimes, or non-political crimes outside of their country of refuge, are not eligible for refugee status.

The Convention does not specify how signatories determine or assign refugee status. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees assists member nations in establishing and carrying out procedures to process claims and review decisions.

The 1951 Convention only applied to persons who became refugees “as a result of events occurring [in Europe] before 1 January 1951.” These limits in time and geography were in place until 1967, when the Refugee Protocol expanded refugee protection to people fleeing persecution worldwide on a more permanent basis.

1952–1980: A Series of Efforts

The United States did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, instead passing its own set of laws which also aided specific groups of refugees for limited periods of time.

The 1953 Refugee Relief Act defined “refugee” (someone in a non-Communist country fleeing persecution), “escapee” (someone fleeing communism), and “expellee" (an ethnic German forced out of Eastern Europe). The act allowed approximately 190,000 refugees, escapees, and expellees to arrive in the United States before the legislation expired in 1956.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (known as the Hart-Celler Act), which eliminated the “national origins” quotas that for 40 years had seriously limited the ability of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, to obtain US immigration visas. The new immigration law reserved 6% of each year’s visas for people who were fleeing persecution in communist areas or the Middle East, or had escaped after a natural disaster. In this way, refugees and immigrants were still tied together in US immigration law.

A combination of presidential directives and congressional legislation aided other specific groups of refugees. In 1958 and 1966, presidents Eisenhower and Johnson issued “parole” directives to aid 30,700 Hungarian refugees and nearly 500,000 Cuban refugees fleeing their nations’ revolutions, reclassifying these refugees as permanent US residents. With the support of President Gerald Ford, Congress passed a law in 1975 to allow more than 130,000 South Vietnamese and Cambodians to enter the United States, and President Jimmy Carter permitted 15,000 refugees who had escaped southeast Asia by boat to become permanent US residents in 1977.

1967: United Nations Refugee Protocol

The 1967 United Nations Refugee Protocol expanded the 1951 Refugee Convention, which had originally limited the definition of “refugee” to people who had been displaced in Europe prior to 1951. The new Protocol expanded the responsibilities to all refugees from any part of the world and at any time, but still allowed nations to define for themselves how they would assess refugee status.

The United States signed the United Nations Refugee Protocol on November 6, 1968.

1980: Refugee Act

In March 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, expressing that it “is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” The Act laid out the procedures for the admission of refugees into the United States and how the US would fulfill its obligations as a signatory of the United Nations Refugee Protocol.

The Refugee Act of 1980 remains in effect. Between 1980 and 2018, more than 3,000,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States.


After World War II and the Holocaust, the United States and the international community recognized that refugees and displaced persons merited special consideration and should be dealt with separately from immigrants, who are moving to a new country to seek a better life. The United States did not immediately adopt a consistent refugee policy in the wake of World War II, instead patching together various immigration, refugee, and displaced persons legislation for temporary fixes to address specific crises.

The United Nations Refugee Protocol of 1967 established the current international norms for defining and dealing with refugees, and 146 countries, including the United States, have signed this protocol. Since 1980, the United States has had a defined procedure for carrying out the country’s agreed-upon duties under the protocol.