McNair/Gateway Scholars Program USC

Carnissa Lucas Smith


Major and Classification

Philosophy, Policy, and Law

Faculty Mentor

    Douglas Becker, Ph.D.


    International Relations

McNair Project

Well-Founded Fear: An Exploration of U.S. Refugee Laws

Refugee and asylum laws are a hot topic within American politics at the moment, especially considering the current crisis at the border concerning unaccompanied minors. This research project investigates the origins and evolution of the definition of refugee in connection to the concept of "well-founded fear", a notion that is inextricably connected to the definition of a refugee. With these questions in mind, historical research as well as textual and discourse analysis were employed for the project. Analysis of language in several laws, policies and court cases are vital. Evaluated documents include: The Displaced Persons Act (1948), The United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), the US Immigration and Nationality Act (1952), The US Refugee Relief Act (1953), The US Refugee-Escapee Act (1957), The US Immigration and Nationality Act (1965), The US Refugee Act (1980), INS v Stevic (1984), and INS v Cardoza-Fonesca (1987). Additionally, consideration of events surrounding the passages of these laws and rulings illuminate the attitudes and political climate of America at the time. This project investigates the evolution of refugee laws in the United States from discriminatory regulations focusing on victims of Axis regimes during World War Two to inclusive acts without regional exclusions. However, the concept of a "well-founded fear" still is unclear, despite Supreme Court cases that somewhat addresses the matter. Further, it seems questionable that the US has given up its prejudices concerning refugee applications completely. Continuing with the inquiry began by this project, future studies should investigate the fairness and prejudices in the asylum process as well as further research concerning how a "well-founded fear" is applied.