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Displaced Persons Act of 1948

The Law: Federal legislation designed to help resettle thousands of Europeans who had been displaced from their homes by World War II

Date: Enacted in 1948

Significance: Under this law, refugees became for the first time a major factor in U.S. immigration, and the administration of this law would influence subsequent policies on refugees, notably those from communist countries, including Hungary, Cuba, and Vietnam.

When World War II in Europe came to an end in 1945, an estimated 7 to 11 million displaced persons were still living in Germany, Italy, and Austria. President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to enact legislation that would allow some of these wartime refugees to enter the United States. Along with the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, a prorefugee lobbying group working for legislation to bring displaced persons to the United States, the Truman administration supported admitting a number of European refugees over and above the existing immigration quotas for that region of the world. The law passed in 1948 authorized the entry of 200,000 displaced persons over the next two years but within the quota system. When the act was extended for two more years in 1950, it increased displaced-person admissions to 415,000.

Among numerous restrictions on immigration imposed by the law, the act stipulated that only applicants who had been in resettlement camps by the end of 1945 would be eligible for American visas. It also gave preference to relatives of American citizens and insisted that all applicants must present guarantees by sponsors that housing was waiting for them and they would not displace American workers. More important than these restrictions, however, was the fact that the legislation authorized the U.S. Displaced Persons Commission to administer the program, instead of the U.S. State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This enabled President Truman to appoint three commissioners known to be sympathetic to refugees to administer the program. Consequently, the program used less severe screening and security measures than similar programs of earlier decades.

Refugees admitted to the United States under this program were also aided by voluntary social service agencies, accredited by the Displaced Person Commission. Most of these agencies were created by religious and ethnic groups, who gave assurances that the admitted refugees would not become “public charges” and that they, the agencies, would help oversee the resettlement of the refugees. Among these relief organizations were the National Catholic Welfare Council, the National Lutheran Council, the ChurchWorld Service, and the United Service for New Americans. They sponsored the majority of persons brought to the United States under the Displaced Persons program.

Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman. (Library of Congress)

By the end of 1952, slightly more than 400,000 persons were admitted to the United States under the authority of the Displaced Persons Act. More than 70 percent of them were refugees from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Nearly 75 percent came to the United States within family groups, and about 16 percent, or 63,000 persons were Jewish. The people admitted under this program represented nearly one-half the 900,000 legal immigrants admitted to the United States from 1949 to 1952. For the first time in American history refugee immigration became an important component of immigration.

John Boyd

Further Reading

  • Bon Tempo, Carl J. Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the ColdWar. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. 
  • Genizi, Haim. America’s Fair Share: The Admission and Resettlement of Displaced Persons, 1945-1952. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 
  • Zolberg, Aristide. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. 

See also: Anti-Semitism; Congress, U.S.; Fedorenko v. United States; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration law; Jewish immigrants; Quota systems; Refugee Relief Act of 1953; Refugees; World War II.

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