Increased Asylum as U.N. Definition of Refugee Adopted


United States

Borders Citizenship Migrations

Prompted by a significant influx of refugees, the 1980 Refugee Act systematized the United States’ admissions and resettlement process for refugees and incorporated the United Nations’ formal definition of a refugee into law. The 1980 Act provided relief for refugees from Southeast Asia, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent El Salvador, Haiti, Afghanistan, Poland, Ethiopia, and Romania. The legislation created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program and, per the United Nations’ definition, established a refugee as someone 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The act challenged the government’s common practice of favoring refugees from communist countries (in accordance with Cold War policy (see also: Cold War Spurs Immigration Restrictions, 1952) as potential refugees from non-communist countries often bore a greater burden of proof of persecution. The legislation also raised the annual ceiling for admission from 17,400 to 50,000 per year and expanded assistance to recently arrived refugees. In 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno extended the 1980 Act to recognize lesbians and gays as a “social group.”