North American Immigration
Refugee Act (United States) (1980)
The Refugee Act of 1980 formed the basis of refugee policy in the United States until 1996. It declared that American policy was to “respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution” by any of the following means “where appropriate”: Humanitarian assistance for their care and maintenance in asylum areas, efforts to promote opportunities for resettlement or voluntary repatriation, aid for necessary transportation and processing, admission to this country [United States] of refugees for special humanitarian concern to the United States, and transitional assistance to refugees in the United States. The Congress further declares that it is the policy of the United States to encourage all nations to provide assistance and resettlement opportunities to refugees to the fullest extent possible.
The Refugee Act was designed to bring U.S. law into compliance with international treaty obligations, particularly the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the United States had acceded in 1968. The act therefore separated refugee and immigration policy and adopted the broader UN definition of a refugee as Any 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 . . . is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Refugees were exempted from the immigrant preference system, as were immediate relatives. The act provided for quotas to be reviewed annually. In 1980, 50,000 new refugee applicants were admitted. The number rose to 110,000 by the mid-1990s.
Currently, the president, in consultation with Congress, establishes the annual refugee quota from each geographical area. The Department of State is then responsible for determining specific countries from which refugees will be accepted. In 1997, for instance, 78,000 refugees were permitted to enter the United States, with slots for Africa (7,000), East Asia (10,000), Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (48,000), Latin America and the Caribbean (4,000), and the Near and Middle East (4,000) and another 5,000 spots allocated as a reserve for trouble areas.
See also refugee status