The Impact of Refugees on the Size and Security of the U.S. Population


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An NPG Forum Paper
by Edwin S. Rubenstein

Since the end of World War II, the United States has provided a safe haven for many oppressed peoples. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 – the first refugee legislation enacted by Congress – provided for the admission of 400,000 Europeans uprooted by the war. Later laws provided for the admission of persons fleeing communist regimes in Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, China, and Cuba.

More than 3 million refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since 1975.

The ebb and flow of refugees over this period can be linked to foreign wars and terrorist events in this country. The big spike in the late 1970s and early 1980s reflects the admission of more than 350,000 Indochinese refugees following the communist takeover of Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, followed shortly by the Balkan Wars, triggered another wave of refugees in the early 1990s; nearly half of all refugees admitted to the U.S. between 1989 and 1994 were from former communist bloc nations.

Admissions plummeted briefly after the September 2001 attacks, only to rebound in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war. Over the past four decades refugee admissions have been as high as 207,000 in 1980, and as low as 27,000 in 2002. The normal range for refugee admissions has been between 60,000 and 90,000 per year.

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