Presidents and Refugees, an Exceptional American Story

If anyone is looking for a case study in presidential courage when it comes to refugees, the humble accidental presidency of Gerald R. Ford offers some timely lessons, as noble as it was politically risky. It was the spring of 1975, nearly a year after Nixon’s resignation catapulted Ford into the White House, and the Fall of Saigon on April 30 created a humanitarian crisis for thousands of South Vietnamese men, women, and children who had supported the alliance with the United States for decades.

President Ford proposed an emergency refugee policy to admit 130,000 Vietnamese and Cambodians, and was publicly and privately furious with bipartisan opposition. There’s a video of him in April 1975, snipped above, literally carrying a child refugee off a plane and onto U.S. soil.

In an interview with NPR, the head of Ford’s interagency task force, Julia Taft, remembered that the president was, “really committed to making sure that these innocent victims and people who had been allies of the U.S., that we just didn’t abandon them.” But with high unemployment and inflation haunting the country, welcoming foreigners from the opposite side of the globe was unpopular. The biggest problem was California, namely the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown. He, and many other Democrats in Congress, insisted the Vietnamese not be resettled in their home states.

“It just burns me up, these great humanitarians: They just want to turn their backs. We didn’t do it to the Hungarians, we didn’t do it to the Cubans and, damn it, we’re not going to do it now.” — President Ford, May 1975

40,000 Hungarian refugees had been welcomed by the United States after 1956, and 675,000 Cuban refugees after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba. And in 1975, Ford thought the same kind of program should be considered for the victims of socialism in Asia.

The Norm and Reform

Senator Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat and Senator from West Virginia, promised to cut the funding Ford requested for transporting refugees from Southeast Asia, according to a special report in the New York Times. “There is no political support for it in this country,” Byrd declared. Internationally, support was nonexistent. Australia offered to take 100 refugees. Guam took two.

Despite opposition from many quarters (the Times mentions a certain young Senator from Delaware twice in its 1975 coverage), two groups stood out admirably. First, veterans around the country and particularly in San Diego, vocalized support. Second, organized labor was steadfastly supportive of the full program to its great credit, in spite of a general policy of opposing guest worker visas. Labor leader George Meany said of the Vietnamese people seeking refuge, “If this great country can’t absorb another 30,000 to 40,000 and find them jobs, we’re denying our own heritage. The group is a drop in the bucket.”

Public opinion was strongly against President Ford, but he stuck to what he thought was right. In the end, The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act passed on May 23, 1975, formally authorizing 130,000 refugees for transportation and resettlement. Eighteen months later, Ford was voted out of office, and Jimmy Carter was voted in. The election did not turn on immigration policy, however, and Ford’s leadership changed the way Americans thought about refugees. The Vietnamese and Cambodians were, by and large, enthusiastic naturalized American citizens, and their assimilation created tremendous goodwill for large-scale approaches going forward.

The Policy of an Exceptional Country

For those who complain about America’s moral failings, its refugee policy is a profound corrective. This United States alone has welcomed more refugees year after year, than the rest of the world combined.

Using data from the State Department (via the excellent MPI), I crafted a chart of my own as well as some political analysis of which presidents and parties were the most welcoming to refugees. Formal data are only available, as far as I have been able to attain, back to 1975. Presidents affiliated with the Democratic Party have admitted 82,000 refugees on average, compared to 70,000 for Republican presidents.

The table above showcases profiles of presidents raising the bar for refugees above the legal limit in nearly every year. They recognized that admitted refugees were making hugely positive contributions to the United States as citizens, so the program is one of the most successful and morally worthy foreign policies of the past century. The major exceptions were the presidencies of Donald Trump and George H. Bush, but the in the case of Bush, the numbers were raised higher continually during his two terms following the immediate clampdown after 9/11. A man with less backbone might have capitulated to politically expedient demagoguery of foreigners who were potential terrorists, but George W. Bush was a far better man than that, and his advisers supported the need for America’s moral leadership in showcasing the equal, unbiased embrace of immigrants from every country in the world.

Let’s hope the current president provides such moral clarity as he sets the refugee number for the next four years.

Economist, entrepreneur, US Air Force veteran, and co-author of BALANCE: The Economics of Great Powers