This article examines the role of the United States in the international refugee regime. While the United States has been a strong supporter of multilateral institutions in issues that range from trade to health to security, this support has never been unconditional or absolute. (1) There are many examples where the United States has used the United Nations to advance its foreign policy interests, but also many other instances where the United States has acted unilaterally and, rather than relying on multilateral structures, has turned to hand-picked "coalitions of the willing" to advance its foreign policy interests. (2) So, too, US policy toward the international refugee regime has been ambivalent: on the one hand, US support for multilateral governance of global refugee issues has been crucial. On the other hand, the United States has sometimes taken unilateral actions in ways that have weakened this international order.
The United States has ratified the principal instruments that protect refugees; offers substantial financial support to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international humanitarian organizations; accepts tens of thousands of refugees each year for permanent resettlement; provides asylum and temporary protection to still further persons arriving spontaneously on its territory; has systems that offer protection to victims of trafficking; and has pledged to help reduce statelessness. While the United States is thus often identified as a key proponent of an effective international system for assistance and protection of refugees and forced migrants, its policies on refugees and other forced migrants, particularly those seeking to arrive on its borders, have sometimes weakened the international refugee regime. Nor has its support for multilateral approaches to refugee assistance and protection been consistent; as discussed in the following sections, at times the United States has relied on unilateral policies, whereas at others it has cooperated with other governments and international organizations to improve responses to refugee crises.
This article considers the factors that explain when the United States chooses to act multilaterally through the institutions and decision-making procedures of the global refugee regime. By considering the history of US engagement in global refugee issues, we argue that the United States chooses to be an active and influential member of the global refugee regime when several conditions come together. First, when there have been strong foreign policy linkages to crises that produce refugees, and the refugees themselves are seen as a manifestation of US policy interests, the United States has been more willing to take action and influence the decisions of others. Second, clear and highly visible humanitarian needs and important domestic constituencies in support of action to address those needs help mobilize US leadership. Third, strong congressional backing of presidential decisions to exert US leadership facilitates those actions, especially when new resources must be appropriated in support of proactive policies and programs.
This article begins with discussion of the historical role of the United States in protection of refugees. It then focuses specifically on US leadership during the Cold War as the current refugee regime was established. The following section discusses the evolution in US attitudes towards the international organizations mandated to assist and protect refugees and displaced persons. The current mechanisms by which the United States exercises leadership internationally are then examined, focusing on three policy frameworks: (1) financial support to the international refugee system; (2) admission of refugees and others in need of international protection; and (3) use of its convening power to mobilize support for solutions for refugees and concrete commitments by other states. The article concludes with an assessment of current US leadership and likely role in the future.
The Historical Role of the United States in Refugee Protection
The United States is the quintessential nation of immigrants, founded in large part by people seeking safety from persecution and religious intolerance, albeit often in turn displacing indigenous populations living in settlement areas. From the seventeenth century through the first decade of the twentieth, the United States provided a safety net for millions of refugees, mostly from Europe, through its largely open door immigration policies. While providing no specific admissions priority or distinctions for those whom we would now identify as refugees, US policies on religious toleration and the Constitutional Bill of Rights proved to be a strong draw for those fleeing persecution, especially on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, and political opinions.
The first specific mention of flight from persecution as a basis for special treatment in US immigration law appeared in 1917 when legislation was passed requiring new immigrants to be literate in their native language. Persons fleeing religious persecution in their home countries, either by law or practice, were explicitly exempted from the requirement. (3) In vetoing the legislation, President Woodrow Wilson stated his opposition to the literacy requirement in general but also cited problems with the exemption. He had previously criticized the literacy test as an affront to the United States as an asylum for the persecuted, but he found the formulation of the refugee exemption troubling. It would require the US government to pass judgment on the actions of another government, potentially causing "very serious questions of international justice and comity." (4)
The United States shifted its immigration policies more significantly in the 1920s towards more restrictive standards. (5) For the first time, the country adopted overall numerical ceilings on admission and established national origins quotas that made it all but impossible for immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to enter. The legislation also confirmed the bars on admission of immigrants from Asia that had been adopted in 1882. No exceptions were made for refugees. In fact, during the Great Depression, administrative actions made it even more difficult for refugees to enter than other immigrants. (6)
US leadership internationally on refugees also flagged during this period. While the United States was the driving force behind the Evian Conference in 1938 to address the situation of refugees from Nazi Germany, the United States failed to make concrete commitments to accept refugees. The conference had a dual mission: to encourage countries to resettle refugees and to persuade Germany to establish an orderly emigration process. Although there was much sympathy expressed for the refugees, few concrete proposals came out of the conference. From the beginning it was clear that little would happen at the conference. In calling for the conference, US President Franklin Roosevelt made it clear that he was not asking any country, including the United States, to change its refugee policy. Subsequently, no government pledged to resettle significant numbers of refugees (except for the Dominican Republic's rather vague offer). After the conference, in a speech to the Party Congress in Nuremberg in September 1938, Adolf Hitler pointed to the hypocrisy of the countries that condemned Germany's policies but would not admit Jewish refugees: "Lamentations have not led these democratic countries to substitute helpful activity at last for their hypocritical questions; on the contrary, these countries with icy coldness assured US that obviously there was no place for the Jews in their territory." (7) This recognition that other countries would do little to save the Jews and other refugees paved the way for the Holocaust.
US Refugee Policy during the Cold War
After the Second World War, with concerns growing about Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and the large number of refugees in still unstable Western Europe, the United States began to adopt a series of administrative and legislative actions for the admission of refugees and displaced persons outside of the numerical limits and national origins quotas that remained in US legislation. US policy on refugees throughout the Cold War was developed to support US foreign policy interests and enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress. President Harry Truman signed a directive on 22 December 1945 that outlined new administrative procedures to facilitate the admission of war victims into the United States. In 1948, Congress took action to expand admissions of displaced persons. The 1948 Act allowed the admission of 220,000 displaced persons. They were to be admitted within existing quotas, so as not to raise questions about underlying law, but provisions were made to borrow, or mortgage, up to 50 per cent of a country's annual numbers to facilitate the additional admissions. In 1950, proponents of more liberal immigration provisions were able to amend the Displaced Persons Act to increase the number of available visas and lessen some of the more restrictive aspects. The numbers to be admitted increased to 415,000, but maintained the "mortgaging" provisions. It eliminated preferences for persons engaged in agriculture and for those from the Baltic countries. It allowed admission to those who had entered displaced persons camps after 1945. Further legislation followed. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 offered 205,000 entry slots, this time without borrowing from the national origins quotas.
The Refugee Relief Act went beyond the displaced persons legislation in covering "any person in a country or area which is neither Communist nor Communist dominated, who because of persecution, fear of persecution, natural calamity or military operation is out of his usual place of abode and unable to return thereto, who has not...