What Is the United States Refugee Act of 1980?

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When thousands of refugees fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and Africa during 2016, the Obama administration invoked the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 in declaring that the United States would embrace some of these victims of conflicts and admit them into the country.

President Obama had the explicit statutory authority to accept these refugees under the 1980 law. It allows the president to admit foreign nationals who face “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” into the United States.

And particularly in times of crisis, to protect U.S. interests, the law gives the president the power to deal with “unforeseen emergency refugee situation” such as the Syrian refugee crisis.

What Changed With the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980?

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 was the first major change in U.S. immigration law that attempted to address the realities of modern refugee problems by articulating a national policy and providing mechanisms that are capable of adapting to changing world events and policies.

It was a statement of America's long-standing commitment to remaining what it has always been – a place where the persecuted and oppressed from across the globe can find refuge.

The act updated the definition of "refugee" by relying on descriptions from the United Nations Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. The law also raised the limit on the number of refugees the United States could admit annually from 17,400 to 50,000. It also gave the U.S. attorney general the power to admit additional refugees and grant asylum to them, and expanding the office's powers to use humanitarian paroles.

Establishing the Office of Refugee Resettlement

What many believe is the most important provision in the act is the establishment of specific procedures on how to deal with refugees, how to resettle them and how to assimilate them into U.S. society.

Congress passed the Refugee Act as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act that was passed decades before. Under the Refugee Act, a refugee was defined as a person who is outside their country of residence or nationality, or someone who is without any nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to his or her homeland because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of raise, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or membership in a political group or party. According to the Refugee Act:

“(a) There is established, within the Department of Health and Human Services, an office to be known as the Office of Refugee Resettlement (hereinafter in this chapter referred to as the "Office"). The head of the Office shall be a Director (hereinafter in this chapter referred to as the "Director"), to be appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (hereinafter in this chapter referred to as the "Secretary").
“(b) The function of the Office and its Director is to fund and administer (directly or through arrangements with other Federal agencies), in consultation with the Secretary of State, and programs of the Federal Government under this chapter.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), according to its website, provides new populations of refugees with the chance to maximize their potential in the United States. “Our programs provide people in need with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.”

The ORR offers a wide spectrum of social programs and initiatives. It provides employment training and English classes, makes health services available, collects data and monitors the use of government funds, and acts as a liaison between service providers in state and local governments.

Many refugees who escaped torture and abuse in their homelands benefited greatly from mental health care and family counseling provided by the ORR.

Often, the ORR takes the lead in developing programs that harness the resources of federal, state and local government agencies.

In 2010, the United States resettled more than 73,000 refugees from more than 20 countries, according to federal records, largely because of the federal Refugee Act.

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Moffett, Dan. "What Is the United States Refugee Act of 1980?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/united-states-refugee-act-1980-1952018. Moffett, Dan. (2021, September 9). What Is the United States Refugee Act of 1980? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/united-states-refugee-act-1980-1952018 Moffett, Dan. "What Is the United States Refugee Act of 1980?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/united-states-refugee-act-1980-1952018 (accessed March 21, 2023).