by Rafael Medoff
In the span of a single day, the Biden administration announced that it would not increase this year’s cap on refugee admissions from 15,000 — then promptly reversed its position. The administration’s flip-flop has ignited protests from both liberal refugee advocates, who hope the new president will adopt a more generous policy, and conservatives, who want to maintain the low number established by President Trump.
But whether the refugee cap is increased to 125,000 annually, as President Biden originally promised in February, or kept at the 15,000 level of his predecessor, or ends up somewhere in between — as now seems likely — America’s policy of admitting refugees remains inadequate for meeting the human rights challenges of our era. Perhaps the time has come for a new approach — one based on a proposal first made in 1943-44.
Current U.S. and international law defines a refugee as someone who is compelled to leave their country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Refugee admissions are processed separately from regular immigration.
Since 1980, the annual maximum number of people admitted as refugees has been set by the president. In most years, it has ranged between 50,000 and 100,000. This policy is consistent with America’s noble tradition of welcoming the oppressed, and it stands in welcome contrast to U.S. policy in the 1930s and 1940s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt shut America’s doors to most Jews fleeing the Nazis.
But the current system is not an adequate response to large-scale human rights emergencies. The vetting process for refugees typically takes years, and the number admitted almost certainly would fall short in a crisis involving mass atrocities. To make matters worse, each year’s presidential determination includes limits on the number of refugees admitted from specific regions of the world, without any way of knowing, in advance, where the need will be greatest.
Even when the number of refugees to be admitted each year has been only in the tens of thousands, there has been backlash from those who claim that financial or social conditions in the U.S. should preclude greater refugee admissions. Some opponents even see the entry of refugees as a plot to “replace” American voters with foreigners.
President Biden’s fear of such backlash reportedly contributed to the administration’s slide from his initial promise of 125,000 — made in a presidential address on February 4 — to 62,500 in a State Department memorandum a week later, to 15,000 last week.
History offers a bipartisan alternative to constant public controversies and policy reversals.
At the end of 1942, the Allies publicly confirmed that the Nazis’ killings of Jews in occupied Europe were not random wartime atrocities, but rather a “bestial policy of cold-blood extermination.” In mass shootings, then in gas chambers in death camps, the Germans and their collaborators were carrying out the systematic slaughter of millions of innocent Jews.
In the months to follow, American Jewish organizations and other refugee advocates began promoting a novel idea — that the Allies should create “temporary sanctuaries,” in the United States and elsewhere, where European Jews could stay until the end of the war.
The campaign picked up important bipartisan momentum in the autumn of 1943. The presidents of the National Democratic Club and the National Republic Club called for allowing the entry of anyone seeking “to avoid religious persecution” for the duration for the war. Representative Samuel Dickstein (D-NY) introduced a resolution urging temporary haven in the United States for all victims of Nazi persecution. In the Senate, W. Warren Barbour (R-NJ) proposed the admission of 100,000 refugees from Nazism until the end of the war.
A key flip-flop by President Roosevelt moved the proposal closer to reality. Until the end of 1943, FDR’s position was that nothing could be done to rescue European Jews except to win the war. But under strong pressure from Congress, the Treasury Department and Jewish groups, FDR belatedly reversed course and, in January 1944, agreed to create a new government agency, the War Refugee Board.
One of the first proposals made to the president by the Board, in early 1944, was to create “temporary havens of refuge” in the United States for Jews fleeing Hitler. “It is essential that we and our allies convince the world of our sincerity and our willingness to bear our share of the burden,” Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., one of the leaders of the Board, argued. Even if those admitted were treated no differently from prisoners of war, “it would be better to treat the Jews as prisoners of war than to let them die.”
Leading Democrats and Republicans lined up in support of the War Refugee Board’s proposal, as did numerous labor unions, religious bodies and important voices in the media. Syndicated columnist Samuel Grafton coined the term “Free Ports for Refugees.” “A ‘free port’ is a small bit of land… into which foreign goods may be brought without paying customs duties… for temporary storage,” Grafton explained. “Why couldn’t we have a system of free ports for refugees fleeing the Hitler terror?… We do it for cases of beans… it should not be impossible to do it for people.”
There were opponents of the proposal, of course—Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for example. He believed Jewish refugees were “unassimilable” and would negatively affect America’s “racial stock.”
The White House privately commissioned a Gallup poll to gauge public opinion on the issue. The results were startling. The American public, which by wide margins had long opposed additional immigration, now favored giving “temporary protection and refuge” to European Jewish refugees by 70% to 23%. The difference between temporary and permanent admission seems to have been the most important factor in bringing about this dramatic shift in public opinion. Foreigners who would stay until for the duration of the war, and would reside in special facilities, were not perceived by the public as posing a threat to America’s economy or culture.
Sadly, however, President Roosevelt agreed to admit just one group of 982 refugees. They arrived in August 1944 and were housed in an abandoned army camp in upstate New York. The Washington Post, in an editorial, decried the paltry number admitted as “a drop in the bucket compared with the needs.”
But America, today, can do better. Instead of basing all admission of refugees on the principle that their stay will be permanent, temporary havens would offer a supplemental option for those in need of immediate protection. This would go considerably beyond current U.S. policy, under which “Temporary Protected Status” may be granted to individuals who have already reached the United States on their own. Temporary havens, by contrast, would specifically contribute to mass rescue from state-sponsored persecution, with the refugees brought to the United States until it is safe for them to go home. Such a policy would be based not on arbitrary numerical caps and regional limitations, but actual refugee crises around the world.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. In some situations, different strategies might be more effective, such as temporary havens in countries closer to the scene, or the use of military action against the persecutors, as the United States and its allies undertook in the Balkans and in Libya. Each human rights crisis would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if bringing refugees to the United States temporarily would be the most helpful approach in those circumstances.
And there are aspects to this policy that would need to be ironed out, such as who would bear the cost for transporting; where the refugees would reside; how long refugees would be allowed to stay in the United States in the event of a protracted crisis in their native country; and how their employment options and freedom of movement would be defined.
Those details can be resolved if we start talking about them now, instead of waiting until the next genocide is already underway. As the Holocaust and subsequent genocides have demonstrated, there always seems to be another mass human rights crisis just around the corner. Let’s get ahead of the curve by coming up with an innovative refugee policy, such as temporary havens, that will truly reflect American’s humanitarian values.