The cataclysm of World War II (1937–45) had a profound effect on immigration to North America. With restrictive immigration policies in place by the 1920s, interwar immigration to the United States and Canada had been dramatically curtailed from the peak years just before World War I (1914–18; see World War I and immigration). The exigencies of war dropped the numbers further still. The United States admitted almost 1.3 million immigrants in 1907, 50,000 in 1937 when war broke out in China, and less than 24,000 in 1943. Canada’s peak year had been 1913, when almost 400,000 immigrants landed; immigration in 1937 dropped to about 12,000 and further down to 7,445 in the trough year of 1943. But war also changed people’s attitudes toward immigrants and those who might become immigrants and presented enormous challenges to current policies. First raised were security questions regarding potential enemies: What should be done with the millions of Japanese, Germans, and Italians living in North America? Also, with millions of men and women serving abroad, labor needs had to be met at home, and provision had to be made for foreign families acquired while overseas. Finally, there were humanitarian questions regarding the protection of children threatened by war and the eventual resettlement of refugees and other persons displaced by the war. As a result of these challenges, a number of important exceptions were made to the various immigration restrictions in the United States and Canada. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism declined in the United States, and there was a generally less hostile attitude toward nonfounding ethnic groups throughout North America. Though major new immigration legislation was not passed, changing attitudes as a result of the war did pave the way for more far-reaching legislative changes in the future.
Militarism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism or racism, including anti-semitism, had been common features of political life among the totalitarian governments of Italy, Germany, and Japan during the 1930s. The first stage of World War II began when Japan, under Emperor Hirohito, invaded China on July 7, 1937. The war expanded when Germany, under the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, bringing Britain and France into the conflict. By June 1940, Nazi Germany had conquered or neutralized all of central, northern, and western Europe. Germany failed in its attempt to invade Great Britain in 1940, but gradually fortified the entire Atlantic coastline, further consolidating its control. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, seeking new sources of oil and other raw materials and gaining direct control over the majority of Europe’s Jews. Finally, the Japanese bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into a conflict that would last another three-and-a-half years, pitting the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan against the major Allied powers of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. By the end of the war in early September 1945, almost 16 million Americans and more than 1 million Canadians had served in the military in every part of the world. U.S. deaths totaled more than 400,000; Canadian deaths, 45,000. The devastation in the main theaters of combat was even greater. The military death tolls were staggering: Soviet Union, 7.5 million; Germany, 3.5 million; China, 2.2 million; Japan, 1.2 million; Great Britain, Austria, Poland, and Romania more than 300,000 each. By the end of the war, more than 20 million people had been displaced from their homes in Europe, and millions more in Asia.
With Britain at war from 1939, charitable organizations almost immediately petitioned the Canadian government to provide asylum for child refugees, including Jews living in Britain, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal. The ruthless Nazi bombing of civilian populations in Britain led to widespread sympathy for the resettlement of British children, and more than 50,000 Canadians offered to host guest children and mothers until the end of the war. Despite the fact that Canadian Jews were prepared to host the previously approved Jewish children, the government refused to include them in the evacuation plan, fearing that it would lead to immigration of their families following the war. The Canadian government approved a plan to host up to 10,000 British children, with Britain responsible for screening and transportation costs, Canadian provincial agencies and relief organizations responsible for placement, and private citizens responsible for daily care. After the sinking of the SS City of Benares on September 14, 1940, and the resulting deaths of 73 children, the program was discontinued. Altogether more than 4,500 children and 1,000 mothers were allowed to immigrate; virtually all were non-Jewish Britons.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the war was brought to the doorstep of the United States. In response to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the U.S. Congress had already passed the Alien Registration Act (1940), requiring all non-naturalized aliens 14 and older to register with the government and tightening naturalization requirements. With the declaration of war against Germany, Italy, and Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 1 million foreign-born immigrants from those countries became "enemy aliens.” Although Italians and Germans were at first suspect, most were so deeply assimilated into American culture, living in local communities with long traditions, that they were largely left alone. More visibly distinct and ethnically related to the attackers, Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent were quickly targeted in the early war hysteria. Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were widely suspected as supporters of the aggressive militarism of the Japanese Empire. The territory of Hawaii was put under military rule, and the 37 percent of its population of Japanese ancestry was carefully watched. On the mainland, many politicians and members of the press, along with agricultural and patriotic pressure groups, urged action against the Japanese. Despite the absence of any evidence of sabotage or spying and the testimony of many that they posed no threat, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forcible internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were born in the United States (see Japanese internment, World War II). In the same month, the Canadian government ordered the expulsion of 22,000 Japanese Canadians from a 100-mile strip along the Pacific coast.
Japanese Americans were forced to dispose of their property quickly, usually at considerable loss. Most nisei, or second-generation Japanese, thought of themselves as thoroughly American and felt betrayed by the justice system. They nevertheless remained loyal to the country, and eventually more than 33,000 served in the armed forces during World War II. Among these were some 18,000 members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became one of the most highly decorated of the war. Throughout the war, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned under the War Relocation Authority in one of 10 hastily constructed camps in desert or rural areas of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Idaho, California, and Wyoming. The camps were finally ordered closed in December 1944. The Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 provided $31 million in compensation, though this was later determined to be less than one-10th the value of property and wages lost by Japanese Americans during their internment.
In Canada, the government bowed to the unified pressure of representatives from British Columbia, giving the minister of justice the authority to remove Japanese Canadians from any designated areas. While their property was at first impounded for later return, an order-in-council was passed in January 1943 allowing the government to sell it without permission, and then to apply the funds realized to the maintenance of the camps. With labor shortages by 1943, some Japanese Canadians were allowed to move eastward, especially to Ontario, though they were not permitted to buy or lease lands or businesses. Though it was acknowledged that "no person of Japanese race born in Canada” had been charged with "any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the years of war,” the government provided strong incentives for them to return to Japan. After much debate and extensive challenges in the courts, more than 4,000 returned to Japan, more than half of whom were Canadian-born citizens. More than 13,000 of those who stayed left British Columbia, leaving fewer than 7,000 in the province.
With more than 16 million men in arms throughout the war, the U.S. government reached an agreement with Mexico to admit mostly agricultural laborers to the United States. The Emergency Farm Labor Program, commonly known as the Bracero Program, was to cover the period from 1942 to 1947. It enabled Mexican workers to enter the United States with certain protections in order to ensure the availability of low-cost agricultural labor. Despite wages of 20–50ў per day and deplorable living conditions in many areas, braceros, both legal and illegal, continued to come, finding the wages sufficient to send money home to their families. The effect of this wartime measure was to be far reaching. Hundreds of thousands of poor Mexican laborers were exposed to life in the United States, and their legal experience under the program soon led to an almost equal number of illegal immigrants. The Bracero Program was extended over the years until 1964, by which time Mexico had become the number one source country for immigration to the United States.
U.S. servicemen fighting side-by-side with Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians against imperial Japan led to a new respect for those who were immigrants. It also became important that the U.S. government send a signal to former colonial peoples then suffering under Japanese control. For both these reasons, the government passed a series of measures that proved to be beneficial to Asian immigrant groups. As a result of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 of 1941, employers were forbidden to discriminate in hiring on the basis of "race, creed, color, or national origin.” This opened a wide range of jobs, especially to Filipinos who had been suffering economically since passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. The government also lifted its ban on Chinese immigration and naturalization in 1943, enabled Filipinos who had served in the U.S. military to become naturalized citizens in 1943, extended naturalization privileges to all Filipinos in 1945, and lifted restrictions on the naturalization of Asian Indians in 1946.
With the ending of the war, two problems affecting immigration came to the fore. The first and largest was the refugee question. Some 20 million people had been displaced by the war, and by mid-1945, more than 2 million were living in European camps, mostly in Germany and Austria. These included some 9 million Germans returning to their homeland, more than 4 million war fugitives, several million people who had been forced into labor camps throughout the German Reich, millions of Russian prisoners of war and Russians and Ukrainians who had served in the Germany army, and half a million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians fleeing occupation by Soviet troops. Americans and Canadians were shocked to learn of what came to be known as the Holocaust, Hitler’s attempted destruction of the entire Jewish population in Europe. Six million Jews had been murdered in Nazi work camps and death camps, about 60,000 were liberated, and another 200,000 had survived in hiding. New humanitarian measures were imperative to cope with the crisis.
As a result, U.S. president Harry Truman issued a directive on December 22, 1945, stating that U.S. consulates give first preference in immigration to displaced persons. No particular ethnic group was singled out, but Truman instead insisted that "visas should be distributed fairly among persons of all faiths, creeds, and nationalities.” Of the 40,000 visas issued under the program, about 28,000 went to Jews. Truman realized that such a measure could only be temporary. In the debate over a more substantial solution, it became clear that anti-Semitism remained strong both in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 superseded Truman’s 1945 directive. The original proposal of 400,000 visas to displaced persons was gutted in committee, and provisions added that gave preference to persons from areas occupied by Soviet troops—the Baltic republics and eastern Poland—and to agriculturalists. Both these provisions worked against Jewish refugees. The main provisions of the act included approval of 202,000 visas to be issued for two years without regard to quota but charged to the appropriate quotas in future years; up to 3,000 nonquota visas for displaced orphans; and granting to the Office of the Attorney General, with the approval of Congress, the right to adjust the status of up to 15,000 displaced persons who entered the country prior to April 1, 1948. Truman disliked the changes but signed the measure believing it was the best that could be gotten. The Displaced Persons Act was amended on June 16, 1950, to add another 121,000 visas, for a total of 341,000, through June 1951. The number of visas for orphans was raised to 5,000 and taken as a part of the total authorization of 341,000. The provision for adjusting the status of previously admitted displaced persons was extended to those who had entered the United States prior to April 30, 1949. Another section was added providing 5,000 additional nonquota visas for orphans under the age of 10 who were coming for adoption through an agency or to reside with close relatives.
There was a strong proimmigration lobby in Canada, but Canadian citizens were even less eager than Americans to admit Jewish refugees. In May 1946, P.C. 2071 authorized Canadian citizens with means to sponsor relatives outside the normal quota limits. The government also eased documentation requirements for displaced persons seeking entry. Finally, in July it provided for the admission of 3,000 former soldiers from the Polish Free Army, stipulating only that they work on a farm for one year. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s 1947 statement on immigration suggested that it was wanted but affirmed that "the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population.” During 1947 and 1948, a series of orders-in-council provided for the admission of 50,000 displaced persons, representing the first stage of a significant change in Canada’s isolationist immigration policy. King and his ministers were careful to screen Jews, communists, and Asians, however, and most of the early refugee immigration came from the Baltic countries and the Netherlands. As the economy improved, restrictions were relaxed. Eventually a total of about 165,000 refugees were admitted to Canada between 1947 and 1953, including large numbers of Poles (23 percent), Ukrainians (16 percent), Germans and Austrians (11 percent), Jews (10 percent), Latvians (6 percent), Lithuanians (6 percent), and Hungarians (5 percent).
Less momentous but equally pressing to those affected was the question of thousands of war brides and their hero husbands seeking legal means of bringing home their wives. The U.S. Congress passed the War Brides Act of December 28, 1945, authorizing admission to the United States of alien spouses and minor children outside the ordinary quota system following World War II. Amendments in 1946 and 1947 authorized admission of fiancées for three months as nonimmigrant temporary visitors, provided they were otherwise eligible and had a bona fide intent to marry, and made special provision for Asian wives. Eventually some 115,000 British, 7,000 Chinese, 5,000 Filipina, and 800 Japanese spouses were brought to the United States, as well as 25,000 children and almost 20,000 fiancées.