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How the refugee crisis after World War I led to the immigration laws we see today.

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Refugees from Belgium in Paris, 1914.

By now you've seen the images. Millions of refugees fleeing war zones in Syria and Iraq, trying desperately to reach a new life anywhere else. And the photo yesterday of a small boy, lying limp on a beach, drowned while trying to escape with his family. 

This boy's family, NPR reported, had applied to legally immigrate to Canada. 

"They had applied for legal migration to Canada because the father's sister was living in Canada," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. "And they were denied. So their only option to join their relatives in Canada was to put their lives in the hands of the smugglers."

Canadian immigration officials, meanwhile, deny they ever received an application for asylum. They only received an application for the boys' uncle, and it was sent back. 

But local Canadian MP Fin Donnelly told the CBC he personally delivered an asylum request for the boy and his family to the immigration minister:

"It was terrible and obviously action was needed," he said. "That's why I agreed to do what I could, including personally talking to the minister about her case." Donnelly said his office pushed as hard as his staff could to learn more, but received no response. The result is "utter frustration and devastation," he said.

Many have wondered how this death, and so many others, can be allowed to happen, when the need for help is so obvious. But it's not exactly surprising to find such bureaucracy and confusion behind an immigrant's application for asylum. Immigration law, in many countries, was created specifically to keep out war refugees. 

The United States, as you probably heard in elementary school, is a nation of immigrants. And, for much of the history of this country, our borders were not guarded. If your ancestors arrived in America from Europe in the 1800s, they did not have to fill out a complicated visa form, pass a citizenship test or even show a passport. Prior to 1880, there were basically no immigration restrictions at all. In 1882, Congress passed a law barring all Chinese immigrants from entering the country, along with other laws to exclude "the entry of idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge." 

In America, as in most of Europe, the borders were, for the most part, open.

Even with these laws on the books, though, the federal government didn't get involved in enforcing immigration policy. It was an era of nearly unfettered immigration to the U.S. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty went up in New York harbor, with its famous words, written by the poet Emma Lazarus, "Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It wasn't until 1892 that the federal government even built a station in which to process all these new immigrants. And, even on Ellis Island, millions of immigrants were granted access to the United States after only a brief medical exam. In America, as in most of Europe, the borders were, for the most part, open. 

What finally changed that was war. During World War I, nations in Europe set up border checks to prevent enemy spies from entering their territories. This is when it became common to check a person's passport as they entered a country. In 1914, Great Britain passed the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act to regulate movement through its borders. 

When the U.S. moved toward greater immigration controls, however, the concern wasn't over wartime security. Instead, America's leaders were worried about a sudden flood of refugees in the aftermath of the Great War. 

Columbia history professor Mae Ngai writes of this era in her fascinating and thorough history, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America:

A crisis atmosphere surrounded discussion of immigration in Congress in 1920-21. The American Legion, the American Federation of Labor, and patriotic orders warned that "hordes" of impoverished people fleeing war-torn Europe were on the way, their migration facilitated by a drop in the cost of transoceanic travel. Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington, chair of the House immigration committee and an avowed restrictionist, called for an immediate, two year suspension of immigration lest the nation be inundated with a flood of undesirable aliens.

In 1921, Congress passed a law that capped overall immigration into the United States for the first time. And it created a quota system that placed limits on how many immigrants would be allowed from each foreign nation. The "huddled masses" would still be allowed into the United States, but now there would be limits. 

The limit in 1921 was set at 355,000 immigrants per year. Today the limit is 675,000. The overall U.S. population has tripled in that time period, but the immigration quotas have not been allowed to grow at the same pace. 

It is important to note that refugees are treated differently than immigrants under current U.S. law. But the U.S. has a cap on refugee admissions as well. Each year, Congress holds hearings to decide how many refugees should be admitted into the country. The president makes the final call on the number. Last year, the ceiling was set at 70,000.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that more than four million people in Syria have been displaced by war. Refugees and other immigrants continue to try to seek asylum across Europe, and continue to die trying to do so. 

Here in the U.S., an estimated 11 million people are living in violation of current immigration restrictions. Last year, instability and violence in Central America sent tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing for the U.S. border. 

People all around the world continue to seek refuge from chaos and instability, just like they did after World War I. And the laws still haven't caught up. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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