Political Exiles to the United States

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POLITICAL EXILES TO THE UNITED STATES. America has been envisioned by some as a haven for religious and political exiles since the earliest settlement attempts in what is now Florida by French Huguenots in the sixteenth century. Though these early refugee colonies did not survive, English Puritans established successful colonies in Massachusetts, while Charles I of England chartered a viable Catholic colony in Maryland. As political dissidents and others were banished in increasing numbers from the French and Spanish empires, the British colonies in North America became used as a place to relieve the pressures caused by those thought to be subversive. By the end of the seventeenth century, England actively promoted its colonies as a refuge for the oppressed of its rivals. English officials encouraged the migration to North America of Protestant settlers from France, Spain, and elsewhere by promising free land, religious freedom, naturalization, and a general regime of the "rights of Englishmen." Though such policies were clearly based on British self-interest, and were obviously contradicted by the maintenance of slavery, involuntary servitude, and other oppressive practices, the idea of British North America as a haven for the oppressed and an asylum for dissidents gradually took powerful hold.

During the Revolutionary War, many American patriots enthusiastically endorsed Thomas Paine's ringing call, in Common Sense (1776), to "prepare in time an asylum for mankind." The Revolutionary War, however, also revealed deep contradictions in the ideal of America as a haven for those with dissident political views. Ideological conformity became a powerful part of the emerging national character, as newly formed governments sought to exclude and banish monarchists and others whose principles were deemed too dangerous to tolerate. Quaker pacifists, for example, were interned in Virginia, while laws in Georgia prohibited the entry of Scottish immigrants, who were believed to support monarchy.

Throughout the 1790s, the tensions between a vision of America as a haven and a nation that sustained political conformity became stronger. The first Naturalization Act, passed in 1790, required immigrants to take an oath to support the Constitution. Federalists became increasingly concerned about Jacobin and "Wild Irish" ideas arriving with new immigrants, while Republicans worried about the aristocratic leaning of refugees from the successful uprising in St. Domingue led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The Federalist-sponsored Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, inspired by fears of French influence in U.S. affairs, constituted a decisive, though temporary, rejection of the asylum principle in favor of a desire to exclude and deport European radicals.

With the ascendance to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the immediate threats posed by the 1798 sedition and deportation laws passed. Jefferson, however, was ambivalent about the United States as an open country for political exiles. Indeed, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), he had worried that immigrants from monarchies would "bring with them the principles of the governments they leave." Still, the general Republican view, as Jefferson expressed it in "A Republican Farmer" during the election campaign of 1800, was a return to the conception of the United States as a place where "every oppressed man … would find an asylum from tyranny." In his first Annual Message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson, supporting a restoration of more open immigration policies, asked, "shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?"

During the War of 1812, however, U.S. policies toward political exiles hardened again. Over 10,000 British aliens were forced to register with U.S. marshals. As "alien enemies," British nationals faced mandatory relocation and other restrictions. After the war, and until the late nineteenth century, America remained open to virtually all European immigrants, including many political exiles from Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the development of harsh, race-based exclusion and deportation laws aimed at Chinese laborers and other non-European immigrants. These laws eroded the general openness that had characterized U.S. immigration law and led to ideological exclusion laws in the early twentieth century. The government began to focus increasingly on so-called "subversive" ideas such as anarchism and socialism. The 1903 Immigration Act mandated the exclusion of "anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States or of all governments or of all forms of law, or the assassination of public officials." This was the first law since 1798 to bar newcomers based on their opinions. The immigration acts from 1917 up to 1952 expanded the ideological exclusions of the 1903 Act and authorized deportation for "subversive" advocacy without a time limit after entry. The so-called Palmer Raids, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 through 1920, resulted in the arrest of thousands and the ultimate deportation of some 500 aliens on political grounds.

By the mid-twentieth century, the developing idea of a refugee as a person having special rights to protection began to contradict the exclusion of immigrants based on their political opinions. Ad hoc provisions for various persons and groups, however, proved inadequate to deal with

the massive persecutions and displacements caused by World War II. After the war, it became clear that the problem of millions of "displaced persons" across Europe was a humanitarian crisis. The U.S. government began to take the problem of political exiles and refugees more seriously as a matter of law and policy at this time. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act authorized approximately 200,000 persons to enter the United States over a two-year period. A 1950 amendment, the "Act of June 16, 1950," permitted 400,000 more refugees to enter the United States.

The most important current protections for political exiles in the United States derive from international law. In 1951, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 1 of the Refugee Convention specifically defined the term "refugee" to include any person who had been considered a refugee under certain specific prior laws or who, "As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." The definition also protected certain persons who had no nationality or had multiple nationalities.

The Convention included provisions for civil rights for refugees in Contracting States and protections against the expulsion of refugees lawfully in their territory "save on grounds of national security or public order." Article 33 specifically prohibited the expulsion or return of a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened" on account of one of the grounds listed above. Article 34 provided that the Contracting States "shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees." Protections under the Convention, however, were denied to persons who had committed various types of crimes, especially war crimes, or who had been "guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."

The United States did not become a party to the Convention until 1968, when it acceded to a 1967 Protocol. Thus, through the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. actions for refugees and political exiles remained largely discretionary and ad hoc. Such measures tended to be strongly biased in favor of those fleeing Communist regimes. For example, the 1953 Refugee Relief Act authorized the admission of 200,000 refugees from Communist countries. In 1965, amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act allocated 10,200 visas each year to refugees. However, the definition of refugee was limited to those who had fled "from any Communist or Communist dominated country or area," from "any country within the general areas of the Middle East," or those who were "uprooted by catastrophic natural calamity." As a result, throughout the 1970s, refugee admissions to the United States were highly ideologically biased in favor of those fleeing the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes. For example, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have been admitted to the United States under so-called "parole power" and more than 500,000 Cuban immigrants have become lawful permanent residents as a result of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Over 100,000 refugees from Vietnam were admitted to the United States by special laws in the mid-1970s.

The Refugee Act of 1980 sought to regularize U.S. law relating to political exiles and refugees and to bring it into compliance with international law. It removed the ideological requirement of flight from a Communist country. The Act contains a definition of the term "refugee" that is derived from that of the 1951 United Nations Convention. By the beginning of the twenty-first century some 70,000 to 100,000 refugees were being authorized for admission per year. Since the passage of the Act, more than one million refugees have obtained permanent resident status.

Political exiles who seek to enter the United States still face a complicated, and in some respects a contradictory, legal regime. Certain ideological grounds of exclusion still exist. Thus, U.S. immigration laws still ban, among others, "any alien who … seeks to enter the United States to engage …inany activity a purpose of which is the opposition to, or the control or overthrow of, the Government of the United States by force, violence, or other unlawful means." Members of the Palestine Liberation Organization are specifically banned, as are certain immigrants who were members of a Communist "or any other Totalitarian" party. Still, U.S. asylum and refugee laws continue to protect and provide a safe harbor for thousands of political exiles every year.


Baseler, Marilyn C. "Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607–1800. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. The Refugee in International Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Legomsky, Stephen H. Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy, 3rd ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2002.

Musalo, Karen, Jennifer Moore, and Richard Boswell. Refugee Law and Policy: Cases and Materials. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1997.


See alsoAlien and Sedition Laws ; Aliens, Rights of ; Chinese Exclusion Act ; Immigration Restriction ; andvol. 9:Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida

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