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Historical Review: Americans' Views on Refugees Coming to U.S.

The terrorist attacks in Paris have resulted in a renewed focus on the previously announced plan by the Obama administration to relocate 10,000 refugees from Syria to the U.S. Various Republican candidates and many state governors have expressed concern over the policy in the wake of the attacks, with as many as 26 governors announcing that their states will not accept Syrian refugees -- although their legal or practical ability to prevent the refugees from coming to their state is unclear. President Barack Obama has fought back against these reactions and defended his policies, saying, "We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic."

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This, of course, is not the first time that Americans have been faced with the issue of dealing with refugees fleeing some form of oppression or political reprisal in countries around the world. In 1939, Gallup was asking the nation about their reactions to proposals to allow refugees from Nazi Europe to enter the U.S. In the years since, Gallup has asked Americans about World War II refugees, refugees attempting to flee from Hungary after the 1956 Soviet crackdown on protests there, refugees fleeing from Vietnam after the communist takeover in the mid-1970s and refugees from Albania in the late 1990s.

Overall, a review of these attitudes shows that Americans have a general reluctance to accept refugees into the U.S., even in response to situations that are clearly oppressive.

Gallup's first questions about refugees were asked in January 1939, just a couple of months after the Nov. 9-10 events, which came to be known as Kristallnacht, when Nazi party officials, Hitler Youth and other Germans carried out waves of violence against Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, businesses and Jewish residents in their homes. The events accelerated the attempts of European Jews to flee Germany and proximate countries and to emigrate to nations such as the U.S. The basic question Gallup asked related specifically to refugee children: "It has been proposed that the government permit 10,000 refugee children from Germany to be brought into this country and taken care of in American homes. Do you favor this plan?" A second question asked of a different sample was basically the same as above, but included the phrase "most of them Jewish" and ended with, "should the government permit these children to come in?"

It didn't matter much whether or not the refugee children were identified as Jewish. A clear majority, 67% of Americans, opposed the basic idea, and a lower 61% were opposed in response to the question that included the phrase "most of them Jewish."

This opposition reflected, in some ways, Americans' strong isolationist attitudes at this juncture in history. Separate Gallup polling in December 1939, after the war began with the German invasion of Poland, showed a startling 96% of Americans said the United States should not declare war on Germany and send the Army and Navy abroad to fight. In early 1940, 77% said that the U.S. should not get involved, even if it "appears that Germany is defeating England and France."

A separate Gallup question in June 1940 -- still a year and a half before Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. entry into the war -- asked if Americans would be willing to take care of one or more refugee children from England and France in their home until the war was over. Attitudes in response to this question were more mixed, but still with a slight plurality saying they opposed -- 46% against, 41% in favor.

After the war ended, Gallup asked several questions about the very large number of Jewish and other European refugees who were situated in the ravaged postwar Europe and seeking a home.

Gallup found net opposition in response to each of the three ways the questions were worded. The least opposition was in response to a June 1946 question asking Americans if they approved or disapproved of "a plan to require each nation to take in a given number of Jewish and other European refugees, based upon the size and population of each nation." This question did not focus on the U.S. directly, but rather asked about approval of a "plan." The responses were 40% in favor, 49% opposed. This question was asked again in August 1946 and received similar responses.

In August, a separate question invoked the name of President Harry Truman, saying that the president planned to ask Congress to allow more Jewish and other European refugees to come to the U.S. to live than are allowed under the current law. This idea did not sit well at all with the public, some 72% of whom said that they disapproved.

A 1947 question localized the issue to the state level, stating, "The Governor of Minnesota has said that the Middlewest could take several thousands of displaced (homeless) persons from refugee camps in Europe," and asking the respondents if they would approve or disapprove of their own state taking about 10,000 of these "displaced persons from Europe." A majority, 57%, said no -- 24% yes, with the rest evincing uncertainty.

Questioning about refugees next cropped up in relationship to the Hungarian crisis in the mid-1950s. In early November 1956, Soviet forces brutally suppressed anti-Soviet uprisings and protests in Hungary, by some accounts killing as many as 30,000 people and creating a huge outflow of Hungarians attempting to leave the country as refugees. On Nov. 20, Gallup reminded Americans that 5,000 refugees from Hungary were being admitted to the U.S. and asked them, "If you had room, would you be willing to have one, or more, of the refugees from Hungary stay in your home for a few months, or until such a time as this person could be on his or her own?" Americans were fairly eleemosynary in response to this question -- 50% said yes compared with 35% who said no.

By the next fall (September 1957) Gallup was asking Americans about Hungarian refugees already in this country and found a more mixed response. The question stated that the Hungarian refugees who came to this country had no permanent residence and could be deported at any time, and asked if the law should be changed so that they could stay permanently. The response showed that 44% said no, 41% yes.

And, in 1958, Gallup asked a more specific question about the "160,000 refugees who left Hungary to escape the communists," and used the "it has been suggested" construction in reference to 65,000 of these people coming to the U.S. A majority of Americans (55%) said that they disapproved of this plan, while 33% approved.

The next refugee crisis to make its way into Gallup's polling was in 1979 and related to the tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees known as "boat people." Boat people were primarily Vietnamese people fleeing communist rule in South Vietnam. A series of three questions posed in July 1979 began by asking if Americans would favor or oppose the U.S. relaxing its immigration policies so that many of "these people" (Indochinese refugees, the so-called "boat people") could come to live in the U.S. A majority of 57% said they opposed this idea. But in somewhat paradoxical fashion, 57% said that they thought the boat people would be welcomed if they did come to live in their community. And by 47% to 40%, Americans said they would personally like to see some of these people come to live in their community.

Shortly thereafter, in May 1980, Gallup asked Americans a theoretical question about refugees in relationship to the economy. The first option given to respondents argued that the U.S. should allow those who leave other countries due to political oppression to come and live in the U.S. The second option argued that the federal government should halt all immigration until the national unemployment rate falls below 5%. Given these two choices, 66% of Americans opted for the latter option, while 26% chose the former. It should be noted that May of 1980 was a particularly parlous time in U.S. history, with 59% in June of that year citing inflation as the most important problem facing the nation, with President Jimmy Carter's job approval rating below 40%, and a continual focus on the Americans being held hostage by students in Iran.

In 1999, Gallup asked Americans about Albanian refugees from Kosovo. The question very specifically indicated that "several hundred ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo have been brought to the U.S.," and asked Americans if they supported or opposed the decision to bring them here to the United States. A strong majority of 66% said they supported the idea (and 39% said they would open their house to a Kosovo refugee family). This question is the only one in Gallup's annals where a majority supported the idea of allowing refugees into the U.S., and may have elicited a strong response because it a) specified a low number ("several hundred") and b) presented the resettlement as having already occurred rather than as a hypothetical in the future.

Several research firms have, within recent months, asked the public about refugees, but with mixed results that almost certainly reflect the ways in which the questions were worded. Pew Research Center told respondents that the United States recently announced it will "increase the number of refugees it accepts," with no reference to the specific numbers or where the refugees would be coming from, and found 51% approval and 45% disapproval. On the other hand, a Quinnipiac poll asked if Americans supported or opposed "admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. over the next year," and found almost the mirror opposite results, 41% in favor and 53% opposed.

Gallup is now updating several of its historical trends with updated wording to reflect the Syrian crisis, and these updated results will be available at the beginning of next week.

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