Prior to 1980, departure from communist-dominated or communist-occupied states, or departure from countries in the Middle East, was generally sufficient justification for refugee eligibility. Until this time, U.S. refugee policy was dominated by Cold War geopolitical concerns and strategies. The Refugee Act of 1980 sought to eliminate the prevailing geographic and ideological preferences and to emphasize that persecution, not provenance, was to be the basis for determining refugee eligibility.
The Refugee Act formally incorporated into U.S. law the international definition of refugee contained in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. A refugee is defined as a person outside of his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. By Presidential Determination certain refugees may be processed while still in their countries of origin (Cuba, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union). While in-country processing was designed to be an exceptional remedy to refugees of compelling need, a large percentage of all refugees admitted to the United States have been processed in-country.
Under U.S. law, a person who has committed acts of persecution, or has assisted in the commission of persecution in any way, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is not eligible for classification as a refugee