As the German military swept through Europe, it became increasingly more difficult for refugees to flee abroad. Fewer passenger liners crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Those that did left from neutral ports, such as Lisbon, Portugal. In German-occupied Poland, the SS prohibited Jews from emigrating. Jews in Germany could legally leave until fall 1941. It was still possible until fall 1942 for some refugees to leave France to travel to the United States.
The war also dramatically heightened security concerns in Europe and the United States. Out of fear that the Nazis could smuggle spies and saboteurs in with refugees, immigration officials tightened visa policies for immigrants and non-immigrants. The State Department urged its diplomatic consuls in Europe to screen potential immigrants carefully, including those fleeing persecution, out of fear they could be pressured into working as agents for Germany.
In January 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under pressure from officials in his own government and an American Jewish community then fully aware of the extent of mass murder, took action to rescue European Jews. At the urging of Treasury Department officials, Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) to facilitate the rescue of imperiled refugees. With the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, as well as many other relief groups in the United States, the WRB helped to rescue or protect tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe.
In June 1944, Roosevelt also directed that Fort Ontario, a vacant US Army base in Oswego, New York, become an Emergency Refugee Shelter. Nearly 1,000 refugees in Allied-occupied Italy—most of whom were Jewish—were brought to upstate New York outside of the existing immigration laws. Roosevelt informed Congress that these refugees would be returned to their homelands when the war ended.
Allied victory brought an end to Nazi terror in Europe in May, and to the war in the Pacific in August. However, liberated Jews, suffering from illness and exhaustion, emerged from concentration camps and hiding places to discover a world which still seemed to have no place for them. Bereft of home and family and reluctant to return to their prewar homes, these Jewish displaced persons (DPs) were joined in a matter of months by more than 150,000 other Jews fleeing antisemitism, violence, and Communism in eastern Europe.
Most Jewish DPs tried to begin new lives outside Europe. Palestine was the most favored destination of Jewish Holocaust survivors, followed by the United States. Immigration restrictions were still in effect in the United States after the war, and legislation to expedite the admission of Jewish DPs was slow in coming.
President Harry S. Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward DPs. Faced with Congressional inaction, he issued a statement, known as the "Truman Directive," on December 22, 1945, announcing that visas would be granted to DPs within the existing immigration quotas. While overall immigration into the United States did not increase, Truman's statement led to the admission of more DPs. Between 35,000–40,000 DPs, most of whom were Jewish, entered the United States between December 22, 1945, and July 1, 1948 under provisions of the Truman Directive.
Congressional action was needed before existing immigration quotas could be increased. In 1948, following intense lobbying by the American Jewish community, Congress passed legislation to admit 202,000 DPs to the United States. Nearly 80,000 of these DPS were Jewish. The rest were Christians from Eastern Europe and the Baltics, many of whom had been forced laborers in Germany. The entry qualifications were so stringent and privileged certain refugees to such an extent, however, that President Truman called the law "flagrantly discriminatory” against Jews. Congress amended the law in 1950, but by that time most of the Jewish DPs in Europe had gone to the newly established state of Israel (founded on May 14, 1948).
Between 1945 and 1952, 137,450 Jewish refugees (including close to 100,000 Jewish DPs) settled in the United States. The amended 1948 law was a turning point in American immigration policy and established a precedent for later refugee crises.