A Presidents’ Day Look at Welcoming Refugees

Blog by LSSNCA Advocacy Associate, John Murphy

As we mark Presidents’ Day 2021, we pause to consider where we are today, where we’ve been over the last four years, and how former presidents have welcomed refugees fleeing persecution and violence abroad.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden made welcoming refugees and fixing our Nation’s broken immigration system one of the pillars of his presidential campaign. On his first day in office, he began fulfilling that promise by reversing many of his predecessor’ anti-immigration policies and proposing legislation that, among other things, would provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented persons living in, and contributing to, this country.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, on inauguration day he took actions to preserve and fortify protections for Dreamers, end the “Muslim Travel Ban”, halt construction of a wall along the Southern border with Mexico, and Protect Liberian nationals living and working in our country. He also sent Congress the United States Citizenship Act of 2021 to modernize the immigration system, smartly manage the country’s borders, and address the root causes of migration.

Over the weeks following inauguration, President Biden followed up on his first day’s efforts with further executive actions. One would create a Task Force to reunite families whose children were separated from them at the border by the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. A second executive action calls for the development of a plan to address irregular migration across the Southern border and create a humane asylum system. A third executive action elevates the role of the White House in coordinating the federal government’s strategy to promote immigrant integration and inclusion, including re-establishment of a Task Force on New Americans and ensuring that our immigration system operates fairly and efficiently. It directs federal agencies to review recent regulations, policies and guidance that have set up barriers to legal immigration and it rescinds the previous Administration’s requirement that families must repay the government if relatives receive public benefits (the so-called public charge rule). And finally, an executive order intending to rebuild and enhance programs for resettling refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders. For this commitment, President Biden vows he will welcome 62,500 refugees for the rest of this fiscal year, and raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 for 2022. (Read LSSNCA’s reaction to this latest EO).

According to the Fact Sheet the new president’s strategy is centered on the basic premise that the Nation is safer, stronger and more prosperous with a fair, safe and orderly immigration system that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together and allows people – both new arrivals and those who have lived here for generations – to more fully contribute to our country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has praised the Biden Administration’s commitment to welcome more refugees to the U.S. “The action today by President Biden will save lives. It’s that simple,” Grandi said, “It also shows that strength is rooted in compassion. It signals that the United States will do its part, as it has historically done, to help the world’s most vulnerable people, including by welcoming them in the United States.”

Other presidents have faced refugee challenges, most of them crises, and have, like the current administration, extended the hand of welcome to those fleeing persecution and violence in their countries.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia during the 1930s (and throughout the Nazi-rule era) the United States had no refugee policy, only a slow and lengthy process that required applicants for admission to provide extensive documentation relative to their identity, background, financial resources, and medical history. 

During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term tens of thousands of German Jews applied at American consulates to emigrate to them U.S. Yet restrictive immigration laws severely reduced opportunities for them to come. The 1924 Immigration and Nationality Law established quotas for nations outside the Western Hemisphere, limiting their ability to come to the U.S.

As a result of legal and administrative obstacles to immigration in the 1930s German Jews wishing to emigrate, Roosevelt took limited action by setting quotas for admission to those fleeing Nazi persecution. After Germany annexed Austria and subsequently invaded Poland thousands of potential immigrants added their names to the waiting lists for entry into the U.S.  The President then slightly increased quotas and he called for an international conference to address the refugee crisis. He hoped that the international community would respond by significant numbers of refugees but that did not happen.  

In the early 1940s, Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board to rescue Jews and others trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. It used psychological warfare tactics, sending radio broadcasts into Europe and dropping leaflets warning perpetrators of postwar punishment. The Board calculated that it saved tens of thousands of lives during the final months of World War II.

President Jimmy Carter

According to Boundless, a Seattle-based modern immigration company led by immigration experts, on March 17, 1980 President Carter signed The Refugee Act which established the Federal Refugee Resettlement program to replace a series of ad hoc presidential orders that had typified U.S. refugee policy in dealing with hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees who came to the country at the end of the Vietnam War.  The Act also increased the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to 50,000 from the previous 17,400.

Carter was also president during the Mariel Boatlift, a mass migration of Cubans to the U.S. between April and October of 1980. The Boatlift was triggered by poor economic circumstances in Cuba coupled with Fidel Castro’s surprise decision to allow Cubans who wished to leave the country to do so. Around 125,000 Cubans made the journey to Florida. In a 1980 speech President Carter declared America “a country of refugees” and said that it could continue “to provide an open heart and open arms” to those fleeing Cuba and seek additional assistance from Congress to care for those in need.

President Gerald Ford 

Again, according to Boundless, in 1975, President Gerald Ford undertook a campaign to relocate hundreds of thousands of Vietnam refugees and asylum-seekers to the U.S. who were fleeing the North Vietnamese who were invading Saigon. The President acknowledged the serious human rights issues facing many South Vietnamese residents. These included forced relocation, being held as political prisoners, and even death. To pave the way for the refugees’ arrival in the U.S., Ford gathered a coalition of church groups, southern Democratic governors, labor leaders, and the American Jewish Congress to secure housing and jobs. Several airlifts were organized to bring refugees and asylum-seekers to the U.S. Approximately 120,000 were rescued and relocated following the war. Said Ford, “to ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a Nation of immigrants. I am not about to let Congress do that.”

President Ronald Reagan

Says Boundless in 1981, a few months after he became President Ronald Reagan issued a “Statement on Immigration and Refugee Policy” in which he outlined his goals to continue America’s tradition of welcoming people from other countries, especially those fleeing oppression.  He called for millions of undocumented “illegal immigrants” present in the country to be given recognition and a path to legal status without further illegal immigration.

On November 6th, he signed the Immigration and Control Act, of 1986, the most far-reaching immigration act passed during his presidency. Its most significant effect was that it allowed immigrants who had entered the country illegally before January 1, 1982 to apply for legal status, provided they paid fines and back taxes. This provision, which Reagan referred to as “amnesty” allowed approximately 3 million immigrants to secure legal status after paying $185 demonstrated good moral character, and learning to speak English. This act also made it illegal for businesses to knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Between 1980 and 1990, a span that included the Reagan Administration, the foreign-born U.S. population increased from 14.1 million to 19.8 million. This change included 4 million more Latin American-born residents and 2.4 million more Asian-born residents, as well as, 800,000 fewer European-born residents.

As history shows American presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have long upheld the American tradition of welcoming the stranger – something to remember this Presidents’ Day.


Due to the Biden Administration’s announcements regarding refugee resettlement and immigration, we expect to resettle and assist more individuals and families over the course of the next four years. We will be rebuilding our capacity to serve more refugee clients, but we cannot do it alone! There are several ways you can help us resettle families and individuals in the DMV – become a virtual family or youth mentor, become a Good Neighbor Partner, donate directly to our refugee and immigrant program, donate to our Bold Journey Scholarships, and donate furniture and home supplies! For more information on helping resettle refugees in Maryland and Virginia, check out our website, LSSNCA.org.

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