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Symbolic Politics and Policy Feedback: The United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and American Refugee Policy in the Cold War

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Abstract

Immigration scholars routinely overlook the 1968 U.S. Senate ratification of the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international treaty defining a refugee in ideologically neutral terms. They dismiss this moment as symbolic because U.S. law continued to define a refugee as someone fleeing communism until the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. We use archival documents, interview data, and court cases to argue that legal and bureaucratic mobilization by refugee advocates throughout the 1970s drew on the Protocol, achieving incremental policy change even before 1980, and ultimately shaped the provisions of the Refugee Act itself.

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