Washington, DC–To mark the 41st anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980 which established the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, Voice for Refuge board member and co-author of the historic landmark legislation Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman issued the following statement:
“As the co-author of the Refugee Act of 1980 along with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, I want to mark this 41st anniversary of its passage with both hope and concern.
Although this country would not be what it is today without the extraordinary contribution of refugees and other immigrants, its history of welcoming the stranger has been spotty at best. During the Holocaust, the U.S. refused to open its borders to most Jews and other fleeing the Nazis—and indeed turned away a ship laden with refugees that came to our shores. After WWII, our country’s record greatly improved. The U.S. entered into an international treaty requiring us to accord humane treatment to refugees. We also adopted several laws on the admission of specific categories of refugees.
The Refugee Act was a major reform based on the very best of our ideals. It was prompted by the enormous dislocation created by the Vietnam War, for which the U.S. bore a huge responsibility, and the ethnic cleansing undertaken by Vietnam. The Act acknowledged the importance to the U.S. of accepting refugees, embodied a commitment to accept refugees and established a permanent framework for their admission.
America’s attitude was different then. The Refugee Act passed the Senate unanimously, and there was little public opposition. The U.S. wound up absorbing about a million refugees from Indochina—not to mention taking earlier 600,000 Cuban refugees and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. Americans overwhelmingly accepted our country’s role as a place of sanctuary. But that has changed.
Anti-refugee attitudes have flourished. Our former president demonized refugees, closed our borders almost entirely to them and even ordered children to be kidnapped from their parents to discourage their entry into the U.S.
President Biden, who supported the Refugee Act as a senator, has embraced the importance to our country of refugee admissions, and courageously refused to denigrate those fleeing extreme violence and persecution. His words have been vital. We are eagerly awaiting the President’s signing the increased refugee admissions goal for this year.
Now, we are facing a growing problem at the southern border. There is inadequate housing for the unaccompanied minors coming in unexpectedly large numbers to our country. Some of Trump’s racist and bigoted refugee restrictions are still in place. Some members of Congress are trying to whip up xenophobic reactions to those seeking asylum in order to win the next election.
As we approach both Easter and Passover, let us remember the words of the Bible that enjoin us to be kind to the stranger. Let us respond in a decent and humane way to those fleeing persecution. Let us acknowledge the critical role refugees have played in our own country’s history, starting with the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious freedom. Let us recognize that our government’s policies in Central America helped spawn the miseries that have forced people to seek refuge elsewhere. We can’t just walk away. Let us live up to the values and understanding that the Refugee Act reflects. Let the lamp that the Statue of Liberty holds up shine in our hearts. Let it light the way out of dark hatred and bigotry and xenophobia.”