U.S. Policies on Refugees and Forcibly Displaced People
This timeline covers the history of U.S. immigration policies pertaining to forced migrants. This timeline is not a comprehensive history of immigration laws in the U.S., and it is not only a refugee law timeline. Although most of the laws featured in this timeline do apply to refugees, any laws discussed before 1951 do not officially pertain to refugees as we now define them, because the legal definition of a “refugee” was not recognized by the international community until 1951 and it was not applied in United States law until 1980. When viewing this timeline, it is crucial to think about the different trends that can be seen and to ask yourself why there may be an influx of forcibly displaced people coming to the United States at any specific time. Oftentimes, migrants are coming to the United States to flee war or persecution; for example during WWII many people came to the U.S. fleeing communist and fascist regimes in Europe. As well as noticing trends in migration, it is important to explore why these past policies are still important today.
Policies like the ones developed at the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognized the legal protections given to refugees under international law. Policies like this have improved the way that refugees are treated within the international community and have codified states’ legal obligation to offer them protection. Specifically, after passing the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States brought Cuban refugees to the United States during Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, now referred to as the Mariel Boatlift.
Recently, in the United States, immigration has become a polarizing topic as migration is often framed as a security issue in the media and by some politicians. The Trump Administration has especially focused on decreasing the number of migrants who are allowed to enter the country and has also increased the authority bestowed upon Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. ICE was created in 2003 with the purpose of preventing terrorist acts in the United States by targeting people involved in crimes like human trafficking and people showing support for terrorist organizations. ICE has now moved from targeting terrorists to targeting undocumented immigrants and those hoping to apply for asylum. These individuals often do not pose a threat to society and usually come to the United States fleeing from violence in their home countries, hoping to find a better life for themselves and their family, and searching for the so-called American dream. ICE plays a bigger role in policing society now more than ever, and they have been given more authority under the Trump Administration. For example, ICE signed an agreement with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) which allowed these organizations to share information about unaccompanied children. This aided ICE in tracking down undocumented migrants who were attempting to reunite with their family members and most likely deport these families.
Additionally, the Trump Administration has made it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum at the U.S. border by enforcing policies that force migrants to apply for asylum in Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala in order to be eligible to apply for asylum in the United States. If a migrant applies for asylum in the U.S. but has not first applied for asylum in one of these other countries, then they must first apply for asylum there, where they will encounter dangerous living conditions. Currently, the U.S. has travel advisories warning people not to travel to these countries due to violent crime and safety concerns. After this was passed, the ACLU filed a lawsuit declaring the law is a violation against the United States’ commitment, legally and morally, to protect refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing violence and persecution.
Many policies implemented by the Trump Administration show a blatant disregard for the humanity of forced migrants and for their need for a better, safer, and more stable life in a country like the United States. We cannot pride ourselves on this false hope of the “American dream” if we are not helping the people who are most vulnerable and who could benefit the most from an opportunity to live and work in a country where they are free of persecution. We encourage all viewers to contemplate the way that undocumented immigrants and forced migrants have been portrayed in the United States throughout history and how important this topic continues to be today.