The United States is amidst a major refugee policy event — and it has received little attention from politicians and policymakers. 

“Uniting for Ukraine” (U4U), a Biden administration program intended to speed the entry of Ukrainians to the United States, has relied upon an admissions procedure called parole to great effect. As of September, nearly 50,000 Ukrainians have been paroled into the U.S. Another 80,000 are scheduled to arrive in the next three months. The program requires each Ukrainian to have an American sponsor. It has been a success in this regard too, as 120,000 Americans have signed up as sponsors.

But U4U is not the first or largest use of the parole power to bring refugees to the United States. Once a ubiquitous path to entry to the country during the intense Cold War years of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, parole policies receded during the 1980s were mostly sidelined until U4U.

The administration’s use of parole is a return to tradition, and marks a notable immigration and refugee policy victory for the Biden White House. Understanding its history also enables us to see some of the challenges ahead.

The parole policy originated in revisions to immigration law passed in 1952. The idea of parole was pretty straightforward: the attorney general could admit an “alien” to the United States “for emergent reasons” or if he deemed admission to be in the “public interest.” But the parole policy was almost completely ignored at the time, and for good reason.  Everyone assumed it would be employed sparingly and merely to bring in particular individuals, like those seeking emergency medical care.  

The Hungarian refugee crisis of late 1956, though, changed that calculation. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary to crush a nascent revolution led hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to flee. The world watched in horror as Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, media reports suggested that tens of thousands had died (a gross exaggeration, records later revealed), and Austria filled up with refugees in camps. President Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly denounced the Soviet invasion and wanted to support the Hungarians, but without turning the Hungarian flashpoint into the spark that started World War III. 

Refugee admissions were one solution to Eisenhower’s dilemma, but that path created another question: What legal and policy framework could bring those Hungarians to the U.S.? The national-origins immigration quota system of the era gave Hungary a paltry 865 annual visas, so that was of little help. The Refugee Relief Act, passed three years earlier to bring Europeans fleeing communism to the United States, was about to expire and it still had about 6,500 unused visas that could go to the Hungarians. But this was not nearly enough. 

Parole was “the only other action which is available,” according to the White House, to address this “emergency problem.” Over the next year, the U.S. admitted 31,915 Hungarians via parole.

The admission of the Hungarians, all in all, went smoothly. The Eisenhower administration sped the refugees through security checks and American citizens agreed to sponsor their resettlement. The public largely supported their arrival before some complaints emerged in 1957. Ardent anti-communists worried that the Hungarian arrivals included some unknown number of security risks. At the same time, the economic downturn that produced the “Eisenhower recession” of 1957-1958 soured some Americans on the newcomers.  

In the coming decades, policymakers did not hesitate to parole refugees into the United States. In the nearly 15 years after the Cuban revolution, the United States paroled some 365,000 Cubans. As the United States began its disengagement from Vietnam following the disastrous war there, President Gerald Ford in 1975 announced the parole of up to 130,000 Vietnamese, mostly former allies of the U.S. 

President Jimmy Carter then paroled tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees, most famously but not exclusively “the boat people,” in the late 1970s. Then, facing an influx of over a hundred thousand refugees from Cuba and a smaller number from Haiti in 1980, Carter again resorted to parole. 

Two challenges arose with parole in these instances. The first and most immediate was that parolees lacked a permanent legal status in the United States. Parole provided for admission and the right to temporarily stay in the U.S. But in all these cases, it became clear — sometimes quickly and sometimes over the years — that the refugees could not return home. As a result, various administrations sponsored “status normalization” legislation that set up a path for parolees to become permanent residents and, eventually, citizens.

Second, the mass use of parole started to wear on both the public and politicians. There was more skepticism of the Indochinese, later Cuban, and Haitian admissions. Americans felt the effects of a very wobbly economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This prompted the liberal Democratic representative from Detroit, John Conyers, to ask of government aid programs, “Should we spend them on Vietnamese ‘refugees’ or should we spend them on Detroit ‘refugees’?” Others played to bigotry, fearing that the Cuban and Haitian newcomers were criminals, homosexuals, or just impoverished. Finally, the arrival of so many nonwhite newcomers unsettled many Americans.  

Congress, meanwhile, had grown wary of the executive branch’s reliance on parole to deal with refugee challenges. Indeed, starting with Eisenhower, presidents stretched parole beyond its original meaning and effectively commandeered decisions about how many and which refugees could enter. To address these concerns, legislators passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided  annual refugee admissions to be set by the executive branch in consultation with Congress. In the coming decades, the legislation almost always brought at least 50,000 refugees to the U.S. annually, and sometimes more. 

As a result, the use of parole to bring refugees to the United States receded during the 1980s. This was not because the displaced population shrank. Instead, it grew steadily in the 1980s and early 1990s, with tens of millions living as refugees. But those refugees lucky enough to come to the U.S. did so largely through the new Refugee Act. Parole, in contrast, was used in discrete situations in the intervening decades to bring Cubans, Iraqis, and most recently, Afghans to the United States. But the era of mass paroles was over – at least until the refugee crisis produced by the war in Ukraine. 

The Biden administration’s decision to use parole to aid Ukrainian refugees falls in line with the Cold War history of parole in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The parole of Ukrainians demonstrated support for the beleaguered nation and fortified allies in the region dealing with the influx of newcomers. It also allowed the U.S. to claim the mantle of global leadership. Just as important, the parole process allowed the administration to bypass a gridlocked Congress in the same way that Eisenhower used it to bypass the restrictionist national-origins quotas.

Still, challenges remain. Ukrainian parolees can stay in the U.S. for two years, and depending on the course of the war in Ukraine, the United States may have to consider “status normalization” legislation. This is sure to be contentious in an environment where immigration is a hot cultural and political topic. Relatedly, parole as an exertion of executive branch power historically resulted in pushback from Congress. It’s safe to predict a Republican-led Congress questioning and critiquing President Biden’s use of parole on multiple fronts.

Yet, none of this should obscure the historical moment Uniting for Ukraine has brought the United States to in the late summer of 2022. We shall see if the Biden Administration decides to continue using the parole power to admit Ukrainians and, equally important, whether it decides to use parole to address other refugee crises.

Carl J. Bon Tempo is associate professor of history at the University of Albany, SUNY. He is the co-author of Immigration: An American History (2022) and the author of Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (2008). You can follow him on Twitter: @carlbontempo.