World War II and the Holocaust displaced millions of people in Europe. Throughout the war, American relief organizations lobbied the United States federal government to take in some of these people on humanitarian grounds, particularly Jews who had made it to neutral or Allied territory and were seeking safety. Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt often expressed his sympathy for these petitions, he also stated that his hands were tied by existing American immigration laws.1 A system of quotas created in 1924 restricted immigration on the basis of national origin, limiting the opportunity for many people uprooted by the war to enter the United States.2
To overcome these restrictions, the US War Refugee Board pitched a novel idea to Roosevelt in the spring of 1944—allow refugees to enter the United States temporarily outside of the quota system. The effort would ease the overcrowding in refugee camps in territory controlled by the Allies. It would also aid the War Refugee Board's attempts to convince neutral European nations to accept more refugees. Agreeing to the idea, Roosevelt allowed War Refugee Board officials to select up to 1,000 refugees to come to the United States. A group of 982 mostly Jewish people living in Italy in temporary camps became the first special "guests of the president."3
This photograph, taken in August 1944 by Japanese American photographer Hikaru CarI Iwasaki, captures the arrival of one of the president's "guests" as he entered temporary housing in a camp at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York.4 Their exceptional status as "guests" had made it possible for these refugees to come to the US. However, this status also came with strings attached. These "guests" could not spend a night outside the grounds of the camp, live with American family members, or enlist in the armed forces. Their status was only temporary, and they were expected to return to Europe after the war ended.5
Following the war, some Jewish groups, relief organizations, and elected officials pressed Roosevelt's successor, President Harry S. Truman, to allow these "guests" to stay permanently in the US. In December 1945, Truman agreed that the camp residents would be permitted to stay in the country.
Fort Ontario closed in 1946. The plan to bring people to the US as "guests of the president" during the war was promoted as a success by many relief organizations and voluntary agencies. But those at Fort Ontario were the only refugees to come to the US as temporary guests. The Fort Ontario project was not repeated after the war ended in May 1945, despite an urgent need for resettlement and relief among DPs in Europe.