Although thousands of Jews had been admitted into the United States under the combined German-Austrian quota from 1938–1941, the US did not pursue an organized and specific rescue policy for Jewish victims of Nazi Germany until early 1944.
While some American activists sincerely intended to assist refugees, serious obstacles to any relaxation of US immigration quotas included public opposition to immigration during a time of economic depression, xenophobia, and antisemitic feelings in both the general public and among some key government officials. Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department imposed stricter immigration policies on the grounds that refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany.
It was not until January 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under pressure from officials in his own government and an American Jewish community then fully aware of the extent of mass murder, took action to rescue European Jews. Following discussions with Treasury Department officials, he established the War Refugee Board (WRB) to facilitate the rescue of imperiled refugees. With the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, as well as resistance organizations in German-occupied Europe, the WRB helped to rescue many thousands of Jews in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe.
In April 1944, Roosevelt also directed that Fort Ontario, New York, become a free port for refugees. However, only a few thousand refugees were allowed there and they were from liberated areas, not from Nazi-occupied areas. They were in no imminent danger of deportation to killing centers in German-occupied Poland.
Ultimately, Allied victory brought an end to Nazi terror in Europe and to the war in the Pacific. However, liberated Jews, suffering from illness and exhaustion, emerged from concentration camps and hiding places to discover a world which had no place for them. Bereft of home and family and reluctant to return to their prewar homelands, these Jewish displaced persons (DPs) were joined in a matter of months by more than 150,000 other Jews fleeing fierce antisemitism in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
Most sought to begin a new life outside Europe. Palestine was the most favored destination of Jewish Holocaust survivors, followed by the United States. Immigration restrictions were still in effect in the United States after the war, and legislation to expedite the admission of Jewish DPs was slow in coming.
President Harry S. Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward DPs. Faced with congressional inaction, he issued an executive order, the “Truman Directive,” on December 22, 1945. The directive required that existing immigration quotas be designated for displaced persons. While overall immigration into the United States did not increase, more DPs were admitted than before. About 22,950 DPs, of whom two-thirds were Jewish, entered the United States between December 22, 1945, and 1947 under provisions of the Truman Directive.
Congressional action was needed before existing immigration quotas could be increased. In 1948, following intense lobbying by the American Jewish community, Congress passed legislation to admit 400,000 DPs to the United States. Nearly 80,000 of these, or about 20 percent, were Jewish DPs. The rest were Christians from Eastern Europe and the Baltics, many of whom had been forced laborers in Germany. The entry requirements favored agricultural laborers to such an extent, however, that President Truman called the law “flagrantly discriminatory against Jews.” Congress amended the law in 1950, but by that time most of the Jewish DPs in Europe had gone to the newly established state of Israel (founded on May 14, 1948).
By 1952, 137,450 Jewish refugees (including close to 100,000 DPs) had settled in the United States. The amended 1948 law was a turning point in American immigration policy and established a precedent for later refugee crises.