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Special Message to the Congress Recommending Amendments to the Refugee Relief Act

by Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1953-1961

Special Message to the Congress Recommending Amendments to the Refugee Relief Act
May 27, 1955

To the Congress of the United States:

            The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 has now been in effect for almost two years.
It was enacted to enable the United States to participate with other nations in a great humanitarian effort for the relief of tragic victims of the postwar world, and for the reduction, in a measure, of over-population stresses in friendly nations. Thus we would promote friendly relations with the nations of the world. Beyond this, it was our purpose to further the interests of the United States by bringing to our shores an eminently desirable immigration within the absorptive capacity of this country. The immigrant has brought greatness to our land and a tremendous love for his adopted country. The foreign-born and their descendants--which include all of us--have given devoted allegiance to the United States, in war and in peace, and have helped give to America a unique position of leadership among the nations.

During the last year and a half, substantial progress has been made in setting up the complex organization required to administer the technical requirements of the Act. The necessary cooperation of the various governmental agencies, including those related to medical and security matters, has been enlisted. Over 30,000 visas have actually been issued. Nearly 85,000 applicants are in various stages of processing.

Nevertheless, the purposes of the Act are not being achieved as swiftly as we had all hoped. As a result of the experience gained in administering the Act to date, important administrative instructions designed to expedite the procedures under it have already been issued. The men and women handling the program are fully aware of the urgency of their mission. I am assured by the Secretary of State that further administrative improvements can and will be made.

Experience has demonstrated, however, that administrative improvements are not enough. A number of the provisions of the Act require amendment if the Act's objectives are to be fully achieved. I urge upon the Congress the following:

(1) The Act, at present, contains specific categories of eligibility with specific numbers allotted to each category. It now appears that because of some of the technical requirements of the Act and the growing prosperity in Western Europe, there may not be enough applicants to fill the quotas in some categories. I recommend that there be a provision for the use of unused numbers. Such unused numbers might well be used, for example, for orphans on a worldwide basis.

(2) The Act limits the term "refugee" to those who have not been "firmly resettled." Experience has shown that this provision tends to exclude the hard-working and the adjustable, the very people we want most as new citizens. Moreover, it appears that "resettlement" is such a vague term as to create conflicts in interpretation and delays in clearing applications.

I recommend that this limitation be withdrawn so that, where the refugee otherwise qualifies on a selective basis, he will not be barred because he is diligent and competent.

(3) A similar difficulty is presented by the terms of the Act which require that an "escapee" or "expellee" also be a "refugee." Under the Act this unduly limits the escapees and expellees who may be admitted. This, again, serves to exclude some of the most desirable people who have, at great sacrifice, at least temporarily resettled themselves. I am sure it is enough that a person be a qualified "escapee" or "expellee" to meet the standards on which we all agree. They should not also be required to be "refugees" within the narrow definition of the Act.

(4) The requirement that a "refugee" be living away from his traditional home has excluded many tragic victims of disaster whom I am sure the Congress intended to admit. This includes Netherlands' farmers whose land has been ruined by floods of salt water, Greek mountain people whose herds have been despoiled by Communist invaders and many similar victims of catastrophe. The restriction should be relaxed.

( 5 ) The Act contains a salutary provision enacted by the Congress for the benefit of aliens who are here in the United States and who fear persecution if required to return abroad. There is a limitation, however, within this section which has caused undue hardship in some cases. It requires that the person show "lawful entry as a bona fide non-immigrant", before he is eligible for this humanitarian relief.

I recommend to the Congress that the section be amended to permit the Attorney General to waive this requirement in meritorious cases where the person is otherwise qualified under the Act. It is estimated that this would not involve more than a few hundred cases, but in the case of each individual human being such an amendment would satisfy the beneficent purposes of the Congress.

(6) Obviously people who have risked their lives to escape from totalitarian nations often have no passports. The Refugee Relief Act, however, requires passports and in many cases this has served to defeat the very purpose of the Congress. I recommend amendment to permit waiver of the need for passports and similar documents in the discretion of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General as is already provided in the basic immigration and nationality laws.

(7) Under the Act, no escapee or refugee is entitled to a visa unless there is available complete information regarding his history for two years past, except on waiver by the Secretaries of State and Defense, if it is determined to be in the national interest.

No such requirement is applicable in the case of regular immigrants under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

This two year history, in the case of recent escapees, is often impossible to obtain. Yet these are the very people who have been actively stimulated to risk the perils of escape by our own information program broadcast through the Iron Curtain.

I have faith in the competence of our security personnel, and I recommend that this inflexible requirement be eliminated from the law, leaving it to the sound discretion of the security officer to make his recommendation on the basis of all the facts available. If he is in doubt, he will not certify the refugee or escapee as a proper security risk.

(8) Another obstacle to the achievement of the purposes of the Act is the requirement of individual sponsorship and guarantees of each application for admission. Where responsible, voluntary welfare organizations are prepared to give assurances with respect to applicants by name, it is unnecessary to add the burdensome requirement that individual sponsorship of each such applicant also be provided. I recommend that where such agency assurances are given, individual assurances not be required in addition.

(9) At present, special visas may not be issued to wives, husbands or children of persons admitted under the Act unless they all come to the United States together. If the members of the person's family are following at a later time and are otherwise admissible, then the special visas should be equally available to them.

(10) There are many refugee families in Western Europe whose members would make useful and productive citizens of the United States, but who would face separation if they should avail themselves of the provisions of the Refugee Relief Act. This they are unwilling to do. They would face separation because of the fact that one of their members is ineligible for admission to the United States under the health standards of our general immigration laws, particularly as respects tuberculosis.

We in the United States no longer regard tuberculosis with dread. Our treatment standards are high and modern treatment is increasingly effective. The United States, to its own benefit, could permit many of these families, within the existing numerical limitations, to enter under safeguards provided by the Attorney General and the Surgeon General of the United States assuring protection of the public health and adequate treatment of the afflicted individual and also assuring that such individual will not become a public charge. I urge that the Congress give consideration to amendments that would enable this to be done.

It is my earnest hope that the changes in the Refugee Relief Act that I have above outlined can be accomplished during the present session of the Congress.

The enactment of these changes will permit effective administration of the Act by the Executive branch of the Government and greatly aid the success of the program. The persons permitted to enter the country under the program will make a fine contribution to the body of our citizens. And we shall again reaffirm that the great tradition of sanctuary lives on in America.

Reprinted with permission from John Wolley and Gerhard Peters of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara at the American Presidency Project.

About The Author

This is part of the presidential paper historical series featuring past presidential public papers related to immigration law. The papers of our past Presidents show the impact of immigration law in American history. We thank the efforts of the American Presidency Project who have gathered these important archival documents.

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