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Dancers celebrate Chaul Chnam Thmey

Year of the Dragon
Dancers in Long Beach, California, celebrate Chaul Chnam Thmey — the Cambodian Lunar New Year — in April 2000. One of the worst genocides of the 20th century occurred in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot. Many Cambodians were admitted to the U.S. as refugees after Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge.

From World War I through the end of the Cold War, tens of millions of people were murdered because they happened to belong to a particular ethnic or religious group.
Destination America

Watch the VideoA Century of Genocide

Millions of people who emigrated to America came to live in a democratic society or to worship freely. For many other immigrants, however, especially in recent decades, getting to America was literally a matter of life or death. Some had the misfortune to be members of a minority race, religion, or ethnic group facing persecution—or even extermination—at the hands of the majority. Others belonged to the "wrong" political party, or social class, or backed the losing side in war.

Some historians have dubbed the 20th century "the century of genocide." From World War I through the end of the Cold War, tens of millions of people were murdered because they happened to belong to a particular ethnic or religious group, as in the Armenian massacres or because they stood in the way of totalitarian programs of "social engineering," as in the Soviet Terror famine of the early 1930s.

In most of these episodes, the circumstances were such that escape to the United States was simply not an option for the victims. The Holocaust is an exception. Although the extent of the Nazi program of extermination was not fully known in the West until it was well underway, Judenrein ("cleansing" Germany of Jews) was an explicit goal of the Nazis from the time that Hitler gained power in 1933. Despite ongoing evidence of the Nazi's intentions, like 1938's Kristallnacht, the U.S. government refused to significantly increase the admission of Jewish refugees before World War II broke out, and by the time the United States finally made an effort to prevent the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps, it was too late to save more than a handful. The issues surrounding the American response to the Holocaust are complex, but the failure to do more to prevent the deaths of millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis still haunts America's conscience.

Cold War Realities

The Cold War led to the linkage of American foreign policy and refugee policy. From 1945 to 1980—and even afterward, to a certain extent—the United States gave priority to refugees fleeing from communist regimes. The 1953 Refugee Relief Act, for example, authorized the admission of more than 200,000 refugees mostly from communist countries, over and above the immigration quotas already in force, while later special legislation allowed people from specific groups—like Hungarians escaping the failed 1956 revolt against Soviet domination—into the United States. With the exception of Cubans, however, it was difficult for people living in communist countries to take advantage of this policy. In the mid-1970s, the United States faced a major refugee crisis when communist governments seized power in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. People from these nations who had fought with or otherwise aided the United States in its long war against communism in Southeast Asia now faced persecution by their new rulers. In response, the U.S. government authorized the admission of 130,000 Southeast Asian refugees immediately, and, between 1975 and 1985, another 700,000 people—about 75 percent of them from Vietnam—were resettled in America.

Source: Destination America by Charles A. Wills, Bibliography

Sources: Christopher Columbus-The Granger Collection, Cambodian dancers-AP, Book & Series: Destination America

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