The period of intense political and ideological struggle between democratic countries led by the United States and the Soviet Union (1945–91) and its communist satellites is often referred to as the cold war. As the Soviet Union sought to surround itself with friendly communist states in the wake of the enormous devastation of World War II (1939–45), the United States aided anticommunist, rightwing governments in all parts of the world. Ideological differences thus permeated the processes of modernization and decolonization of European empires. Millions of people were displaced in the struggle between communism and democracy and sought permanent haven in North America.
After World War II, national quotas established in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 remained the fundamental basis of U.S. immigration policy. Instead of wholesale immigration reform, exceptions to traditional policy were made to meet specific needs. In 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive reserving some 42,000 quota slots for European refugees, commonly known as "Displaced Persons.” The War Brides Act (1946) made provisions for the wives and children of American soldiers. Displaced Persons Acts were passed in 1948 and 1950 and the Refugee Relief Act in 1953, the latter allowing visas for up to 2,000 immigrants of Chinese origin wishing to emigrate in the wake of the 1949 Communist victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war.
American isolationists, fearing that special legislation would allow communist agents access to the country, passed the restrictive McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) and the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act (1952), each over President Truman’s veto. Although eliminating race as a barrier to naturalization, the latter measure retained the national origins formula of 1924 and strengthened the government’s ability to denaturalize and deport immigrants associated with subversive groups. With the simultaneous development of decolonization around the world and the Civil Rights movement in the United States, support grew for a liberalization of immigration policy. Senator John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants (1958) espoused the ideological value of a racially neutral immigration policy. Fundamental reform became possible under Kennedy as president and his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) allowed each country in the Eastern Hemisphere an overall quota, with a maximum total for each hemisphere and a broadening of family exemptions from the quota. Refugees from communism, Middle Eastern violence, and natural catastrophe were classed as a preference group to be allotted up to 6 percent of each country’s visa quota and expected to number about 17,400 annually. The number of refugees admitted was always higher, however, as all presidents employed parole authority to exempt hundreds of thousands of refugees, principally those fleeing communist regimes. Between 1962 and 1979, almost 700,000 Cubans escaping Fidel Castro’s government were paroled into the United States and more than 400,000 Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians.
With more than 2 million refugees being paroled into the United States between 1948 and 1980, it became clear that migration pressures brought on by the cold war could not be adequately met by the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The Refugee Act of 1980 increased the normal refugee flow to 50,000 annually and accepted the 1968 United Nations definition of a refugee as one unwilling to return to his native land "because of persecution, or a well-founded fear of persecution.” The measure also established a new category, "Asylee,” which allowed 5,000 refugees already in the country illegally or as students to apply for formal entry. Almost immediately, the new policy was tested by the Mariel Boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to the United States within a matter of weeks in spring 1980 and demonstrated that presidential parole powers would continue to be used to exceed legislative limits. Although all asylees were potentially eligible for admission under a broader definition of "Refugee,” in fact, most of those admitted were fleeing communist regimes. Thus, Cubans and Nicaraguans fared better than Haitians, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans, though all qualified.
As the cold war began to wind down after 1985, it became clear that future immigration policy would be driven by economic, rather than ideological, factors, with Mexican immigration and those overstaying visas from many countries being immediate matters of concern. In October 1991, the U.S. government removed some 300,000 names from a list of "undesirable aliens” begun in 1952 in an effort to keep communist infiltrators out of the country. Between 1946 and 1994, more than 90 percent of 3 million refugees admitted to the United States had been fleeing communist regimes, principally in Poland, the Soviet Union, Romania, China, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.
In the first two years after World War II, Canada maintained the highly restrictive P.C. 695 (1931) as the basis of its immigration policy, which allowed little room for humanitarian relief. By 1947, pressure from the Canadian public, a variety of ethnic organizations, and the Canadian National Committee on Refugees led to a more liberal immigration policy. Promulgated in a series of orders in council, regulatory changes, and international agreements, increasing numbers of Asians were admitted, along with refugees from the old Commonwealth countries and Europe.
The Immigration Act of 1952 regularized Canadian immigration policy, though it remained essentially conservative. The cabinet was given power of limiting immigration on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, or occupation. The most notable admission under the act was that of 40,000 Hungarians who had fled the Soviet invasion of their country in 1956. Ultimately, Canada accepted some 300,000 refugees from central and Eastern Europe between 1947 and 1967. Generally well educated and highly politicized, these refugees balanced what had traditionally been a left-leaning immigrant community. Canada dismantled its racial restrictions in 1962 in a series of regulation reforms.
The further liberalization of Canadian immigration regulations in 1967 changed the character of the immigrant community, with more than half now coming from developing nations. The emergence of a federal policy of multiculturalism and tentative steps toward rapprochement with the Soviet Union under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau by 1971 lessened cold war implications for Canadian immigration. Although most refugees were still those fleeing communist regimes in Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam, leftist refugees from Chile, South Africa, Haiti, and Central America were less feared than in the United States and were generally welcomed. This openness led to the controversial harboring of as many as 100,000 American draft evaders and deserters during the Vietnam War (1964–75). On the other hand, some 60,000 Southeast Asians were admitted in 1979–80, fleeing brutal communist regimes in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.