On 25 June 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed approximately 400,000 displaced persons to immigrate to the United States. The law was a response to the global upheaval caused by the end of World War II and the Holocaust, which left millions homeless throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including survivors of Nazi death camps.
Truman’s decision to sign the Displaced Persons Act came a little over a month after he formally recognized the State of Israel, a decision that shocked many of his advisors and much of the world.
The Act offered aid to refugees, attempted to favor Catholic and Protestant refugees over Jewish ones, and placed strict limits on the number of people who could enter the U.S. by deeming - seemingly arbitrarily - that any person who had entered a refugee camp after 22 December 1945 was ineligible for an American visa. That stipulation prohibited the entrance of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust, but when faced with pogroms in postwar Poland, fled to nearby Germany after 22 December 1945. The legislation also required would-be immigrants to receive medical clearance and secure sponsorship from an American citizen; this was an attempt to assuage the concerns of Americans who worried about the burden refugees would place on taxpayers.
While Truman decided to sign the legislation, in his address to the American people he denounced what he saw as its blatant discrimination and xenophobic undertones, saying, “It is with very great reluctance that I have signed S. 2242, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948….The bad points of the bill are numerous. Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” He added, “The bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.”
Two years later, Congress amended the legislation to broaden the definition of displaced persons to include German citizens and permit the entrance of another 200,000 refugees by removing the cutoff date that had previously blocked the entrance of thousands of Jewish refugees.
President Truman welcomed the legislation, saying, “It is with very great pleasure that I have today signed H.R. 4567, which amends the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. The improvements embodied in H.R. 4567 now bring the American principles of fair play and generosity to our displaced persons program.