Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Impact of 20th Century Wars on Immigration and Naturalization

One of the more interesting aspects of war, in retrospect, is the change in politics and populations which follow them. And in the aftermath of war, we often see major shifts in populations that arise from a number of factors including injuries and casualties, displaced residents or soldiers, re-drawn political boundaries or changes of statehood, as well as massive numbers of refugees as people often flee war torn areas.

Both world wars in the 20th century increased the number of refugees, creating a class of stateless people - many of whom were placed in internment camps. They were often considered undesirable and remained in an "illegal" situation. They could not return to the country that had expelled them and no other country would take them in for naturalization.

Eventually, there was a passport created for stateless people, the Nansen passport. By 1942, 52 countries recognized this document as valid, allowing holder of them to live and remain in countries where they might still be denied citizenship.

Western democracies were not ready to naturalize mass influxes of minorities who had been denaturalized. After World War I, the largest number of these stateless people was Armenians and Jews, but some were Russians escaping the communist revolution and Spaniards fleeing from the Spanish Civil War.

The end of World War II saw another increase in international migrations creating another group of refugees, many of them economic refugees. For humanitarian purpose, many of these refugees were allowed naturalization based on marriage or ancestors who had been citizens. This helped reduce the size of this category.

However, in many countries, such stateless citizens remain in an illegal status, though some countries have accommodated them through massive regularizations.

One fascinating reaction to this problem was the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 by the United States Congress which was intended to exclude certain immigrants from immigrating to America. The McCarran-Walter Act, as it was called, created immigration restrictions that had never before been seen. These restrictions were not simply based on country of origin, but were instead focused on how "acceptable" each person was to the US in very difficult to measure ways. Many people have suggested that the intent of this law was to give officials the latitude to recognize political undesirables, specifically Communists, and prevent them from assimilating into the United States. Interestingly enough, the law was originally vetoed by then President Truman on the basis of discrimination; however there was enough support in Congress for the law to pass.

There have been many smaller conflicts since the conclusion of World War II, but none that have caused the massive upheaval that was seen in the 1940s. However many people of this generation will retain strong memories of watching the plight of Iraqi refugees after the US invasion of Iraq. Similar stories abound following political strife such as those in Vietnam, Korea, Bosnia, Somalia & Afghanistan.

But the real issue of today is the definition and enforcement of illegal immigration as the US tries to get a handle on the millions of people illegally living in the country. And without the urgency of major international strife as a motivator, it will be interesting to see whether or not today's politicians can agree on a course of action that will ultimately solve the problem.

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