Refugee Act

Refugee Act

Refugee Act
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titles Refugee Act of 1980
Long title An Act to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to revise the procedures for the admission of refugees, to amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 to establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees, and for other purposes.
Nicknames Refugee Act of 1979
Enacted by the 96th United States Congress
Effective March 17, 1980
Public Law 96-212
Statutes at Large 94 Stat. 102
Acts amended
Titles amended 8 U.S.C.: Aliens and Nationality
U.S.C. sections amended
  • 8 U.S.C. ch. 12, subch. I § 1101 et seq.
  • 8 U.S.C. ch. 12, subch. II §§ 1157-1159
  • 8 U.S.C. ch. 12, subch. IV § 1521 et seq.
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S. 643 by Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) on March 13, 1979
  • Committee consideration by Senate Judiciary, House Judiciary
  • Passed the Senate on September 6, 1979 (85-0)
  • Passed the House on December 20, 1979 (328-47, in lieu of H.R. 2816)
  • Reported by the joint conference committee on February 22, 1980; agreed to by the Senate on February 26, 1980 (agreed) and by the House on March 4, 1980 (211-195)
  • Signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on March 17, 1980

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 (Public Law 96-212) was an amendment to the earlier Immigration and Nationality Act and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, and was created to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to the United States of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the U.S., and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.[1] The act was completed on March 3, 1980, was signed by President Jimmy Carter on March 17, 1980 and became effective on April 1, 1980. This was the first comprehensive amendment of U.S. general immigration laws designed to face up to the realities of modern refugee situations by stating a clear-cut national policy and providing a flexible mechanism to meet the rapidly shifting developments of today's world policy.[2] The main objectives of the act were to create a new definition of refugee based on the one created at the UN Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees, raise the limitation from 17,400 to 50,000 refugees admitted each fiscal year, provide emergency procedures for when that number exceeds 50,000, and to establish the Office of U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Most importantly, it established explicit procedures on how to deal with refugees in the U.S. by creating a uniform and effective resettlement and absorption policy.[3]


The Act recognizes that it has been the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands and to provide assistance, asylum, and resettlement opportunities to admitted refugees. The goal of the Refugee Act was to create a uniform procedure with which to provide these opportunities to refugees.[4]

Admission of refugees

The Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act by defining a refugee as any person who is outside their country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.[5]

The annual admission of refugees is set to a 50,000 cap per fiscal year unless in an emergency situation, during which the president may change this number for a period of twelve months. The Attorney General is also granted power to admit additional refugees and grant asylum to current aliens, but all admissions must be reported to congress and are limited to 5,000 people.[6]

U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs and Assistance for Effective Resettlement of Refugees in the U.S.

The Act created the position of U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs who was now responsible to the president for the development of overall U.S. refugee admission and resettlement policy.

Title IV of the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended here when the Act created the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for funding and administering federal programs for domestic resettlement and assistance to refugees. The office must make available resources for employment training and placement for refugees to be economically self-sufficient, provide opportunities for English language training, ensure cash assistance, and guarantee gender equality in all training and instruction. The Office must also create grants for these projects, consult with state and local governments about sponsorship and distribution of refugees, and develop a system to monitor the use of government funds using evaluations, auditing and data collection. In order to receive assistance for programs, the States must first explain how they plan to accomplish the goals of these programs, meet the director's standards, and submit a report at the end of each fiscal year.[7]

The Secretary of State was authorized to take on this role from 1980-1981 while the new director worked with them to develop and implement programs for existing refugees and eventually took up the position from 1982 onward. The director must submit a congressional report at the end of each fiscal year to committees on the Judiciary of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The reports should contain information on the geographic location, employment status, and problems of the refugees while also containing suggestions for alternative resettlement strategies. The Office was authorized $200,000,000 during 1980 and 1981 and that number is now decided at the beginning of each fiscal year based on the results received at the end of each year.[8]


It wasn't until after World War II that the United States began to differentiate the term "refugee" from "immigrant" and began creating policy that dealt specifically with refugees while working outside of immigration policy.[9] Early action came in the form of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, and the Refugee-Escapee Act of 1957.[10] The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which was later amended in 1965 to include policy for refugees on a case by case basis, was the first Act that the consolidated U.S. immigration policy into one body of text.

The creation of the Refuge Act began with hearings by the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security from 1965–1968, which recommended that congress create a uniform system for refugees, but received little support. Edward Kennedy began writing to propose a bill to reform refugee policy in 1978 and first introduced the idea to the United States Senate in 1979. With his proposal, he hoped to address the need for a reformed, non need-based policy that was not specifically designed for people from communist regimes in Eastern Europe or repressive governments in the Middle East, as it was in the past. At the time, there was an average of 200,000 refugees coming to the United States, most of which were Indochinese and Soviet Jews.[11] The cost of resettlement was close to $4,000, but most refugees eventually paid this amount in federal income taxes. Many Americans feared a floodgate scenario with a large and sudden increase of the refugee population, but the 50,000 cap would only account for 10% of immigration flow to the U.S. and would allow one refugee for every 4,000 Americans,[12] small numbers compared to those of countries like Canada, France and Australia. The bill was adopted by the Senate by a unanimous vote on September 6, 1979, and remained essentially intact until it was signed in 1980.

External links

  • US Dept. of Health and Human Services page about the Refugee Act
  • *Broken Link*


  1. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  2. ^ Roberts, 1982
  3. ^ Kennedy, 1981
  4. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  5. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  6. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  7. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  8. ^ 94 Stat. 102
  9. ^ Deborah E. Akner, 1981
  10. ^ Roberts, 1982
  11. ^ Kennedy, 1981
  12. ^ Kennedy, 1981


  • Deborah E. Akner, M. H. (1981). The Forty Year Crisis: A Legislative History of the *Refugee Act of 1980. The San Diego Law Review, 9-89.
  • Kennedy, E. M. (1981). Refugee Act of 1980. Refugees Today, 141-156.
  • Refugee Act of 1980. Pub. L. 96-212. 94 Stat. 102. 17 March 1980. Print.
  • Roberts, M. A. (1982). The U.S. and Refugees: The Refugee Act of 1980. A Journal of Opinion: African Refugees and Human Rights, 4-6.