America’s Role in Solving the Migrant Crisis

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Hundreds of thousands of migrants are fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan, making a perilous journey to Europe. For those who arrive in Europe, the reality may not be much better as the European Union, already struggling to stay together amidst financial issues, is now faced with one of the greatest migration crises in history. Meanwhile, in the United States, known for its history of immigration, the question of what can be done to help is gaining attention. Read on to learn about immigration history in the United States, what it has done so far, and what it can do in the future to assist Europe and the migrants risking their lives to make it there.

History of Immigration in the United States

The United States takes pride in being a nation of immigrants, from its initial colonization through several waves of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first big wave of immigrants came to the United States in the mid-19th century, consisting largely of Irish and German migrants fleeing famine and blight in their own nations. The arrival of new people to the United States was not universally welcomed. Because many of the immigrants who came during this period were Catholic, anti-immigration sentiment emerged among many American Protestants who feared the rise of Catholicism in the United States. Another wave of immigrants came during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This group was comprised of Southern and Eastern Europeans such as Italians and Russians. Opposition to the changing U.S. population proved lasting, affecting several different policy decisions in Congress.

Laws Limiting Migration

As large waves of immigrants came to the United States, Congress enacted several new laws to manage, and most notably, limit, the flow of people. The first was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which outlined who was allowed to become an American citizen. While the Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed free white people to become citizens, the Naturalization Act of 1870 expanded to include people of African descent, but still prohibited people from other places of origin. Many early U.S. immigration policies attempted to restrict the flow of immigrants from Asia. For example, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, which was later repealed in 1943.

The most notable change to the U.S. immigration policy came in the 1920s when Congress passed the Johson-Reed Act. The act, passed in 1924, established a quota system that limited the number of immigrants of each nationality to the levels present in the 1890 census. This effectively restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and stopped immigration from Asia–seeking to prevent changes to the racial composition of the population. Finally, in 1965, Congress passed another immigration law, which established the visa system that the United States has today, doing away with the formal quota system. This law sought to focus on reuniting families and allowing skilled immigrants to live and work in the United States. The law also allowed for a notable increase in immigrants from countries in Asia.

How to Enter the United States

Despite the various changes to U.S. immigration policy in the 1900s, becoming a citizen or even coming to the United States remains an arduous process. Currently, there are several ways one can become a citizen or live in the United States temporarily. The first is family-based; a person can come to the United States if they are a child, direct relative, or spouse of someone who is already a citizen.

Second is the visa system, which can be broken down into temporary and permanent categories. Foreign nationals can receive temporary visas for tourism, business, or education. For long-term visitors, the U.S. government can issue a green card giving them permanent resident status if certain conditions are met. There is also a diversity program that encourages immigration from countries with low levels in the United States, in an effort to attract the best and brightest from around the world.


Refugees are also a large part of the yearly immigration total in the United States. Following WWII and the passage of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, approximately 650,00 people were admitted from war-torn Europe. In subsequent years, additional waves of refugees settled in the United States, often escaping oppression from their home governments. The Cold War led to a notable rise in refugees to the United States, particularly after the Vietnam War.

Congress passed the Refuge Act of 1980, which standardized the definition of who is a refugee and how he or she can be resettled within the country. Every year, the president and Congress decide how many refugees the country will accept and from where they will come. Since 1975, roughly three million refugees have been permitted to settle in the United States. The number of refugees accepted annually has ranged from 207,116 in 1980 to 27,100 in 2002.

The Migrant Crisis

What’s Going on in Europe

Before we get to the United States’ role in the current crisis, let’s first go over what is going on in Europe and the Middle East. The immigration crisis affecting Europe is unlike anything the region has ever seen. So far, 350,000 people have migrated to the continent, dwarfing last year’s record high of 219,000 people. Many of the migrants come from Syria where a civil war has caused over four million people to flee the country. More than 2,800 have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year alone.

The massive influx of migrants has created a significant problem for the European Union, which so far leaders have failed to properly address. For more information about the crisis in Europe check out Law Street’s explainer as well as the video below.

Refugees in the United States

According to the U.S. Department of State, a refugee is, “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” For any refugee, the first step is to apply for refugee status with the United Nations in the country where he or she is seeking asylum. Even if a person is granted protected status, there is no guarantee that he or she will be accepted in the United States (there are as many as 15 million worldwide). The idea behind admitting refugees is often to provide a temporary home until they can return to their own countries. While few refugees are admitted, even fewer are allowed to stay somewhere permanently.

Current U.S. Efforts

So far, the United States’ primary contribution has come financially–America has given Europe $4 billion in aid to combat the crisis. However, when it comes to accepting migrants, the United States has come up short. Many of those fleeing to Europe are Syrians, trying to escape a civil war in their homeland. Nonetheless, the quota allotted to Syrian refugees was just 1,500 until recently. On September 10, the Obama Administration called for the United States to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian immigrants in the next fiscal year, which starts October 1.

Some non-profits have called for a much higher number. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants believes the United States should accept as many as 100,000 migrants from Syria in addition to 70,000 to 100,000 immigrants from other countries. This has stirred debate in Congress, where some Republican members are worried that allowing more Syrian refugees could increase the threat of terrorism. The following video outlines the U.S. government’s actions so far in this crisis:

Illegal Immigration in the US

Another consideration for the United States is the number migrants already inside the country. As of right now there are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants–of those, around 50 percent are from Mexico. Illegal immigration remains a hot-button issue for the U.S. government, making its willingness to help Europe even more complicated. When you factor in the population already here, the likelihood of the United States accepting a large number of Syrian refugees is not very high.


The current migration crisis in Europe threatens to overwhelm the European Union, which is struggling to handle so many people. Europe’s inability to control the influx has led to a wide range of criticism. Many are now looking for the United States to step up its involvement in the crisis. So far the United States has given a significant amount of money to help alleviate some of Europe’s problems, but it has done relatively little in terms of accepting refugees. The recent announcement to accept 10,000 Syrians will certainly help, but given the number of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflict-torn countries, both the United States and Europe will need to do more.

People attempting to migrate to the United States, even refugees, face an array of requirements that make the process difficult. Couple that with fears of terrorism and the existing immigration problem facing the United States, and it seems unlikely that it will fill its historic role as the home of last resort. Whatever the United States decides to do, it and the European Union must move quickly, as pressure continues to mount.



Pew Research Center: 5 Facts About Illegal Immigration in the US

UN Refugee Agency: Syria Regional Refugee Response


HSTRY: A History of Immigration in the USA

CNN: European Migrant Crisis

France 24: Hungary to Return Economic Migrants to Where They Came From

American Immigration Council: How the United States Immigration System Works

Refugee Council USA: History of the US Refugee Resettlement Program

US Department of State: Refugee Admissions

The Economist: Migration from Europe

New York Times: As European Crisis Grows, US Considers Taking in more Syrians

Voice of America: US Pledges to Accept More Migrants

INQUISITR: 29 countries accepting refugees from Syria and the Middle East

Center for Immigration Studies: US Immigration Population Record 41.3 million in 2013

Michael Sliwinski
Michael Sliwinski (@MoneyMike4289) is a 2011 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a Bachelor’s in History, as well as a 2014 graduate of the University of Georgia with a Master’s in International Policy. In his free time he enjoys writing, reading, and outdoor activites, particularly basketball. Contact Michael at

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