For 80 years, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has offered welcome and hope to more than half a million refugees. Since 1939, LIRS has transformed lives with the support of individuals, federal assistance, private sector partnerships and Lutheran congregations to welcome the most vulnerable to the United States — from sea to shining sea. Together we have supported, equipped and empowered these new Americans, while advocating for policy that protects all of God’s children.
The New York-based National Lutheran Council (NLC), founded in 1918 to respond to such post-World War I needs as immigration and refugee resettlement, sets up a Welfare Department with an office for the “rehabilitation and placement of Lutheran refugees.” It helped 522 refugees in its first year of operations.
Following the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled 30,263 Displaced Persons from Germany and Eastern Europe.
In October, 1956, student and factory workers of Budapest rose against the Soviet-imposed communist regime. In six days of fighting, they forced government troops to withdraw from the city. But, four days later, Soviet tanks stormed back into the city and crushed the revolution. More than 50,000 Hungarians fled the country. LIRS resettled over 1,500 Hungarian refugees.
Cuban rebel Fidel Castro overthrows his country’s regime and implements a communist government, triggering a flow of refugees seeking asylum. 100,000 Cuban refugees arrived in Florida and LIRS was invited to assist in their resettlement.
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expels some 75,000 citizens from the country, 2,000 of whom are accepted into the U.S. as “parolees”. LIRS resettles 600 new arrivals as a result.
The defeat of South Vietnam by North Vietnam in April of 1975 triggered a flood of refugees from Southeast Asia. Within weeks, LIRS transformed from a four-staffer operation to a crisis response organization with more than 100 staff members. By the end of the year, LIRS had overseen the resettlement of almost 16,000 refugees.
In 1980, LIRS hit the 100,000 mark in refugees resettled since World War II. In the same year, the American Homecoming Act granted U.S. admission to 10,000 Amerasian children fathered by U.S. citizens. The year also witnessed the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.
In 1993, the first survivors of ethnic cleansing”in Bosnia (formerly Yugoslavia) arrived in the U.S. for resettlement. In 1999, 1,700 ethnic Albanians were forced out of Kosovo into Macedonia and eventually resettled by LIRS.
At the turn of the new century, LIRS began welcoming “Lost Boys” – young Sudanese refugees who had been separated from their families for a decade or more after fleeing a civil war. In the first decade of this century, LIRS assisted in the settlement of refugees from Burma, Tibet, Bhutan and Iraq, along with ethnic Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand.
After 80 years of welcome, LIRS and its partners continue answering the call to sponsor and support immigrants and refugees with open doors, open arms, and open hearts. Today, Lutheran congregations support the work of LIRS by offering Circles of Welcome to refugees, assisting with Reception and Welcome for immigrants who have been released from immigration detention, and participation in projects such as Hope for the Holidays and Migrant and Refugee Sunday.
In February 2019, LIRS was proud to announce appointment of Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, former Policy Director to First Lady Michelle Obama, as its President and Chief Executive Officer. After her family was forced to flee civil unrest in Sri Lanka, Ms. O’Mara Vignarajah fulfilled the promise of the American Dream, having graduated from Yale and Oxford and understands firsthand the importance of LIRS’s work. On the future of our mission, she says:
“At a time when too many refugees and asylum-seekers are unsure whether they will be welcome in America, I am committed to ensuring that all immigrants seeking a better life in America are afforded the same opportunities that my family received to pursue their dreams in this great nation.”
We would like to thank all of our supporters who generously used their birthday as an opportunity to host an online fundraiser for the vital work that LIRS does. Your support means that we can continue to uphold our 80-year legacy of welcoming the stranger. Find out why our supporters celebrated their birthday with us and learn how you can too.
Over our 80 year history, LIRS has continued to evolve in order to better respond to the needs of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Today, we coordinate 6,000 volunteers nationwide with the help of more than 100 local affiliates. Check out some of our latest programs below to find out how our work is adapting to the global migration crisis.