White Russian refugees recast as undocumented immigrants during Great Depression
A family of seven sons and one daughter at Ellis Island, New York. Photo by Augustus F Sherman retrieved from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

White Russian refugees recast as undocumented immigrants during Great Depression

To prevent the deportation of White Russian refugees during the Great Depression, refugee advocates and policy makers deliberately recast them as undocumented immigrants, argues historian Deborah Kang.

By Guilia Piscitelli (UCLA 2021) 

UCLA International Institute, November 25, 2019 — At a recent event organized by the Center for the Study of International Migration, Deborah Kang, associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, gave a presentation of material from her unreleased book: “Pathways to Citizenship: Undocumented Immigration and Immigration Legalization in the United States from 1906 to 1986.” Her remarks provided an in-depth look at the exceptional case of the White Russian refugees who fled to the United States prior to the Great Depression.

“Although the White Russians were defined as refugees under international law, and perceived as such by the American public, refugee advocates and policy makers deliberately recast the White Russians as undocumented immigrants, so as to stop their deportations to the Soviet Union in 1933,” explained the historian. Following Kang’s talk, Ingrid Eagly, professor of law at UCLA School of Law, provided feedback on Kang’s research. The audience then engaged in a question-and-answer session with both scholars. 

White Russians in the U.S.

The term “White Russians” refers to Russian nobility and propertied classes who, said Kang, “shared the anti-Bolshevik orientation of the [tsarist] military” and who, with the 1920s defeat of the White Russian armies, “became the enemies of the Soviet Union and the targets of state-sanctioned violence and repression.” As hundreds of thousands of White Russians fled the Soviet Union, “they came to assume a new identity as refugees,” said the historian.

In an attempt to mitigate the humanitarian disaster of large numbers of stateless refugees, the League of Nations appointed Dr. Fridtjof Nansen as the high commissioner for refugees on June 27th, 1921. “Nansen and the League created an international certificate of identity, or what became known as the Nansen passport,” said Kang. By the end of the decade, the passport has been adopted by 54 countries, allowing White Russian refugees to emigrate and live with family and friends. The Nansen Passport is “credited with laying the foundations for an international refugee law regime,” said Kang.

Despite the Nansen Passport, the greatest hurdle faced by most White Russian refugees seeking to enter the United States was the Immigration Act of 1924, which greatly reduced the quota for Russian immigrants.

Deborah Kang, Associate Professor of History at California State University San Marcos.As a result, “the vast majority of White Russians sought alternative modes of entry into the United States,” she said. According to one 1934 estimate, “half of the Russians in the United States managed to gain admission as visitors, entertainers and students on temporary visas,” she continued, “[while] the other half made the conscious choice to enter in violation of the immigration laws as deserting seamen, or as a surreptitious border crossing through Canada or Mexico.” The former eventually became undocumented by failing to renew their temporary status.

Despite their undocumented status, by the time the Great Depression began in 1929, “[the White Russians] appeared no different from middle class Americans, and, indeed, during the economic crisis, they were all employed, rented or owned their own homes and held bank accounts and insurance policies,” said the historian.

“Several immigration advocacy organizations came to their aid as panic spread through many Russian immigrant communities with the news that the United States and Soviet Union had commenced diplomatic relations,” noted Kang. Supporters of the WhiteRussians recognized that this event meant they could be deported to the Soviet Union and persecuted.


Recasting White Russians as undocumented migrants

“[T]he United States was deeply resistant to any policy that undermined its restrictionist immigration laws and opened the gates to new immigration inflows,” remarked Kang. These fears were fueled by the nationalist sentiments characteristic of the Great Depression, as well as racism towards Southern European immigrants, anti-communist ideologies and the anti-Semitism prevalent in U.S. society and the State Department, she explained.

Any effort to admit White Russian refugees, noted the historian, “would have faced tremendous resistance from the policy makers who blocked every effort to admit Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.”

Efforts then began to present White Russians not as refugees, but as undocumented migrants who were highly assimilated into American culture. Activists promised Congress that they would propose legislation that would apply only to the White Russians present “illegally,” rather than create a formal refugee policy that would invite broader immigration.

In order to convince Congress to legalize the status of the White Russians, much effort was made to portray the group as distinct and superior to other immigrants, said Kang. Their whiteness, anti-communist stance and assimilation into American culture provided proof that they “were different not only from other Eastern and Southern Europeans, but also from other Russians,” she elaborated.

The Ellis Island Committee and the Act of June 8, 1934

The protection of the White Russians was largely achieved thanks to the efforts of the Ellis Island Committee which, in it its 1934 report, recommended the “softening of the nation’s laws with respect to deportation and undocumented entry [and an] expansion of immigration legalization, or an expansion of the Registry Act of 1929,” recounted Kang.

Supporters argued that White Russians came to the U.S. with no ill intent and perhaps without a full understanding of the illegality of their actions and without the committee’s recommended amendments, their illegality would “exclude [them] from the fullest participation in the life of the country,” she continued.

The Act of June 8, 1934 passed only a few months after the publication of the Ellis Island Committee Report and created an exception to the immigration restriction laws for White Russians by defining them as undocumented immigrants and then authorizing their legalization.

Reflections on current immigration laws

Ingrid Eagly of UCLA School of Law. The case of White Russian refugees “shows how Congress created a de facto refugee policy for the White Russians through an immigration law, but at the same time used that immigration law to stop the development of a larger, more general refugee policy,” concluded Kang. “This resembles the debates that we [have] had in the late 20th century and early 21st century about whether we should have … both enforcement and legalization at the same time, because these two things counteract each other on the ground,” she recounted.

“Since the 1934 legislation procedure was explicitly reserved for individuals not eligible for citizenship, it drew a dividing line between European and non-European immigrants,” observed the historian. Consequently, she continued, the former “were often characterized as innocent people who made a careless error that was deserving of forgiveness, while the latter were perceived as lawbreakers who constituted a threat to the nation and merited imprisonment or expulsion.”

The case of the White Russians reflects an exceptional approach that the United States applied only to a very narrow group of immigrants” noted Ingrid Eagly of UCLA Law. “Although we do have an asylum law and refugee policy [today], it is being rapidly recoiled, and in its place, it is being replaced with the skeleton that is left of immigration law,” she added.