Americans Have A Very Long History Of Skepticism Toward Refugees

From the 1930s to the present day, the public has often opposed taking in people fleeing violence.
A file photo shows Jewish children arriving in the United States after fleeing Nazi persecution in Austria.
A file photo shows Jewish children arriving in the United States after fleeing Nazi persecution in Austria.
Bettmann via Getty Images

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Friday that would temporarily disallow refugees from Syria.

Friday also happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day ― which Trump commemorated with a statement that said, “As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent. In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”

The juxtaposition casts light on a long history of American skepticism toward people seeking refuge in their country.

Surveys taken last year found that most Americans oppose temporarily barring Muslims from other countries, but that there’s also little enthusiasm for helping Syrian refugees. Last fall, a majority of Americans told Pew Research that the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to accept Syrian refugees, and 50 percent of voters in a Quinnipiac poll they’d favor “suspending immigration from ‘terror prone’ regions, even if it means turning away refugees from those regions.”

In the years leading up to World War II, many Americans were also suspicious of Jews fleeing the Nazis. In 1938, 65 percent of Americans told Gallup that the persecution of Jews in Europe was at least partially their own fault, and nearly three-quarters opposed allowing “a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live.”

In theory, the public supports helping those in need. When asked in 2011 whether the inscription on the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — should still apply to immigration policy, 62 percent of Americans said it should. In the face of a specific crisis, their views often turn less welcoming.

“Americans have a general reluctance to accept refugees into the U.S., even in response to situations that are clearly oppressive,” Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup, wrote in 2015. He noted that the firm had found majority support for allowing in refugees only once, in response to a 1999 question about bringing several hundred Albanian refugees from Kosovo.


Polls from Gallup and other organizations taken since the 1930s show that mistrust of the people fleeing international conflicts is, by now, a well-worn part of U.S. history.

All charts are courtesy of the Roper Center at Cornell University:

1939: Most Oppose Taking In German Refugee Children
Roper Center
1946: Most Don't Want To Require Countries To Take In Jewish Refugees
Roper Center
1953: Opinions Are Split On Allowing Refugees From Communist Countries
Roper Center
1975: Most Fear Vietnamese Refugees Will Take Jobs
Roper Center
1979: Most Don't Want To Admit 'Boat People'
1980: Most Think Taking In Cuban Refugees Made U.S. Look 'Foolish'
Roper Center
1984: Most Say Fewer Refugees Should Be Admitted To U.S.
Roper Center
1985: Refugees Are Seen As Taking More Than They Contribute
Roper Center
1993: Most Disapprove Of Giving Haitian Refugees Asylum
Roper Center
2014: Opinions Are Split On Whether Central American Children Should Be Deported
Roper Center

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