Date of Award

2010

Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Advisor

Elizabeth McKillen

Second Committee Member

Nathan Godfried

Third Committee Member

Kim Huisman

Abstract

In 1951 the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defined "refugee" as one who had a "well founded fear of persecution." The United States did not become a party to the Convention and ultimately did not fully integrate this definition into American law until 1980. Hundreds of thousands of refugees entered the United States during the late twentieth century. The federal government dealt with refugees by means of ad hoc policy and use of the Attorney General's parole power. This ad hoc approach meant, in part, that American refugee policy was susceptible to political influence, public rhetoric, and complex cultural constructions repeated in the media. This research focuses on European Jews fleeing Nazi advancement in Europe, eastern bloc escapees and Hungarians fleeing Soviet advancement in the early 1950s, Cubans who arrived in successive waves throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and Southeast Asians uprooted by war in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the 1970s. Each of these groups attracted American public and media attention and shaped domestic perceptions about refugees. Tracing the response of the American government to refugees provides a glimpse of the intersection between cultural perceptions and policies instituted in the interest of short term crisis management rather than long term relocation and settlement. Using a cultural history perspective, this research demonstrates that the cultural and legal constructions of the term "refugee" are central to understanding the American political response to refugee waves. This research suggests that only by understanding the complex interaction between the legal and social dimensions of the definition can scholars begin to understand the multifaceted place of the refugee in American immigration history and in the narrative of America as a refuge for "huddled masses." This approach will help to reconcile the myth of America as refuge, the cultural image of refugee, and the legal category of refugee. This will create a more nuanced understanding of "refugee" as not simply a legal term or a synonym of immigrant but a more complex cultural construction managed and negotiated throughout the late twentieth century.

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