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Photograph of Refugees Arriving at Fort Ontario

Refugees Arrive at Fort Ontario
National Archives & Records Administration

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.

For more, see Robert A. Divine, American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973); and Kevin Yuill, "In the Shadow of the 1924 Immigration Act: FDR, Immigration and Race," Immigrants & Minorities: Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora 32:2 (2014): 183–205.

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 limited the total annual number of immigrants to the United States to 150,000. The bill established a restrictive immigration quota system based on the demographics of the United States according to the 1920s census. This privileged immigrants from western Europe and made it prohibitively difficult for those from Asia. For more, see Haim Genizi, America's Fair Share: The Admission and Resettlement of Displaced Persons, 1945–1952 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993). 

For more on DP camps in Italy, see Susanna Kokkonen, "Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Italy, 1945–1951," Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1/2 (Spring 2008): 91-106; and Silvia Salvatici, "Between National and International Mandates: Displaced Persons and Refugees in Postwar Italy," Journal of Contemporary History 49:3 (July 2014): 514–36.

After the Japanese navy's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many Americans suspected without evidence that people of Japanese descent posed a national security threat. This included recent immigrants and birthright citizens alike. In 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forcibly relocated roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. Hikaru Carl Iwasaki was imprisoned with his family at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. He worked as a photographer for the US War Relocation Authority, and he took over 1,300 photographs of resettled and interned Japanese Americans during World War II. For more on the photography of Iwasaki and the forcible resettlement and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, see Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens: Hikaru Iwasaki and the WRA's Photographic Section, 1943-1945 (Boulder: The University Press of Colorado, 2009); and the Densho documentary project

For more on the refugee camp at Fort Ontario, see Harvey Strum, "Fort Ontario Refugee Shelter, 1944-1946,' American Jewish History 73:4 (June 1984): 398–421; and David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 260–76.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
National Archives & Records Administration
Source Number 18392
Date Created
August 5, 1944
Photographer / Creator
Hikaru Iwasaki
Fort Ontario, Oswego, New York, USA
Still Image Type Photograph
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