For more than seven decades, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been a champion for migrants and refugees from around the globe. Our legacy of courageous and compassionate service has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have sought safety and hope in America’s communities. Our history reflects American Lutherans’ deep immigrant roots and passionate commitment to welcoming newcomers.

For a detailed look at LIRS’s decades of service, we recommend Open Doors: The Story of Lutherans Resettling Refugees by Richard W. Solberg, published in 1992 by Concordia Publishing House.

The Rev. Stephen Bouman and Ralston Deffenbaugh offer theological and historical perspectives on the Lutheran commitment to caring for the sojourner in They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration published by in 2008 by Augsburg Fortress. The foreword is by the Rev. Dr. Martin Marty. Bouman’s passion and Deffenbaugh’s pragmatic accounts make this an excellent resource for discussion.

Mission Timeline


  • The New York-based National Lutheran Council (NLC), begun 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.” The department’s head, Lutheran pastor Clarence E. Krumbholz, oversees the office. It helps 522 refugees in the first year.


  • The U.S. entry into World War II virtually shuts down refugee resettlement.
  • The NLC establishes a program of congregational outreach to connect Lutheran refugees with local Lutheran churches that can provide the refugees with social support.


  • With the end of the war, refugee camps spring up in Germany, Austria and Italy for displaced persons (DPs) from Eastern Europe, one-third of whom are Lutherans.
  • NLC leaders incorporate a separate agency, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), to contribute to meeting widespread needs in post-war Europe.
  • In recognition of their work resettling refugees in the United States Ralph Long, Executive Director of the NLC; P.O Bersell, President of the Augustana Lutheran Church; and  Lawrence B. Meyer, Executive Director of the Emergency Planning Council of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod arrive in Europe to begin laying the groundwork for a program promoting the reconstruction of Lutheran churches.


  • The trickle of refugees who get into the United States under regular immigration quotas includes a group of 21 teenage boys, most of whom are Estonian Lutherans.


  • The U.S. Congress passes an act authorizing the admission of 205,000 eligible DPs.
  • The constituting convention of the Lutheran World Federation(LWF) in Lund, Sweden, makes helping refugees a priority.
  • Sylvester C. Michelfelder becomes the first general secretary for the Refugee Department of Lutheran World Federation.
  • The Lutheran World Convention establishes a permanent service to refugees in Germany and Austria. Howard Hong, a professor from St. Olaf College, is named director. Based on his work Hong submits a proposal plan for a Resettlement and Emigration division of the LWF.


  • Cordelia Cox, a social work educator, joins the NLC staff as the first full-time director of what will become the Lutheran Resettlement Service (LRS). She serves until 1958.
  • The first Lutheran DPs arrive in the United States on October 30, 1948.
  • The U.S. Congress passes the DP Act. In order to meet requirements LWF opens 24 resettlement offices in DP camps.


  • The staff of the Lutheran Resettlement Service grows from its original three members to 125 during the peak of the DP resettlement program.
  • The first supervisory committee forms to represent churches that comprise the National Lutheran Council. Membership is offered to Missouri Synod members in areas where the synod collaborates with the resettlement program.
  • LRS releases the promotional video “Answers for Anne.” The video is filmed in a DP camp near Nurnberg, Germany and speakers address congregations asking for support and sponsors.


  • Congress passes an Amendment to the DP program which raises the number of DPs admitted into the U.S. from 205,000 to 341,000, plus 54,733 ethnic Germans expelled from various countries. It also grants a one-year extension to the program, which is later extended an additional six months.
  • The Dossier Program generates profiles of DPs in the camps to be circulated to perspective sponsors in the United States.


  • LRS representatives are active in a Presidential Commission on Immigration and Naturalization that develops the report  “Who Else Shall We Welcome.” The report is written in response to the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCArren-Walter Act, which many viewed as discriminatory due to the restrictions it placed on immigration into the United States.


  • Congress passes the Refugee Relief Act, admitting 209,000 refugees, primarily more expelled ethnic Germans and people fleeing East Germany.



  • LRS begins distribution of the monthly publication “Report to Area Committees.” The reports contained a mix of official information and human interest stories.


  • Through numbers taken from the Refugee Relief Act and a parole provision in the regular immigration law, the United States admits 21,500 refugees fleeing a tightened Soviet hold on Hungary. LRS eventually resettles 1,593 Hungarian refugees.


  • Admissions end under the 1953 act, with LRS having resettled a total of 16,006 refugees.


  • In a shift of emphasis to serving immigrants and referring them to local Lutheran congregations, the NLC establishes an office called Service to Immigrants for this purpose. It is headed by attorney Vernon Bergstrom, who is soon also put in charge of the refugee service.


  • The U.N.-initiated observance of a World Refugee Year includes advocacy by LRS for the admission of more refugees to the United States and a more inclusive vision of whom LRS should serve.
  • Fidel Castro overthrows Cuba’s dictatorship and imposes a communist government, triggering a flow of refugees to the United States that has continued to this day.


  • The emphasis of programs within LRS shift from resettlement of refugees to social care of immigrants, resulting in the creation of Lutheran Immigration Service (LIS), which brings together the services of LRS and SI.
  • Vernon Bergstrom, director of LRS, addresses the annual meeting of the NLC with an appeal for greater advocacy. Based in part on analysis from a paper entitled “immigration Policy: Moral Issues and the National Interest,” Bergstrom urges Lutherans to write their elected officials and call for an increase in the number of refugees the U.S. would admit. He also describes the shifting waves of immigration explaining that Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were becoming a greater focus for the work of LRS.


  • Donald E. Anderson, formerly a resettlement officer with the World Council of Churches and LWF in Europe, succeeds Bergstrom as head of the successor body to LRS, which is known as the Lutheran Immigration Service (LIS), and serves until 1975.
  • The United States admits as parolees up to 7,000 Chinese refugees flooding into Hong Kong. LIS resettles 300.
  • Congress passes the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which authorizes a resettlement program for Cuban refugees. The Act is also the first time the federal government offers financial reimbursement to state and local agencies for the cash assistance they provide to refugees.


  • With support from LIS, the Miami Lutheran Refugee Service begins three years of assistance to some 12,000 Cuban refugees.


  • Passage of an immigration reform act, Public Law 89-236, modifies many of the discriminatory provisions of the previous national origins quota system. The act also makes available 390,000 visas for immigrants each year, with a preference for reuniting families.
  • Fidel Castro announces that all Cubans wishing to live in the United States are free to leave Cuba, resulting in an influx of refugees in the U.S. LIS makes the decision to take action by approving a grant of $35,000 to the Christian Community Service of Dade County.


  • The NLC is succeeded by the Lutheran Council in the USA, of which the LC-MS is a full member. LIS becomes the council’s Department of Immigration and Refugee Services, which for its public face uses the name Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).


  • Undocumented Mexican nationals working in the United States are the focus of an LIRS study.


  • Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin expels some 75,000 Ugandans of Indian origin, 2,000 of whom are admitted to the United States as parolees and resettled with direct federal funding to the voluntary agencies. LIRS places 600 of the total.


  • The defeat of South Vietnam by North Vietnam triggers a flood of refugees from Southeast Asia. Within weeks LIRS goes from a four-staffer operation to one with more than 100 staff members. LIRS oversees the resettlement of 15,900 refugees by the end of the year—an all-time annual high.
  • Passage and subsequent extensions of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act authorize a large federal role in funding resettlement.
  • Ingrid Walter becomes acting director of LIRS, a position that is made official two years later in 1977. She serves until her retirement in 1985.


  • LIRS resettles nearly 400 Chileans under a parole program for refugees resulting from a 1973 coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile.
  • LIRS resettles 145 Kurdish refugees from Iraq under a 1976-77 admissions program.


  • A new federal program allows LIRS to initiate specialized resettlement services for unaccompanied refugee minors.
  • Kenneth J. Stumpf is appointed to the newly created position of Coordinator for U.S. Immigration Concerns within LIRS. His primary focus is creating an Advocacy Task Force with an emphasis on forming a system of church-wide organizations that encourage discussions and education on issues surrounding immigration along with promoting action and feedback within the network.


  • The 65 countries represented at an international conference on Indochinese refugees pledge to cooperate in sea rescues of fleeing “boat people” and to resettle 260,000 of them.
  • LIRS administers a new Joint Voluntary Agency for processing boat people in Hong Kong and nearby Macau. The center serves 75,065 refugees over 15 years.


  • The Refugee Act of 1980 defines refugees as persons unable or unwilling to return to their home countries “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.” The act replaces the parole system for refugee admissions with an annual quota determined by the president after consultation with Congress. The initial quota is 50,000.
  • An orderly admission of refugees is almost immediately upset when President Castro of Cuba opens the port of Mariel. The thousands who cross to Florida are processed not as refugees but as “entrants.” LIRS sets up a program under which 8,298 Cuban and 2,257 Haitian entrants are resettled.
  • The 100,000th refugee resettled by LIRS since World War II is Kao Lor, a farmer from Laos who begins a new life in Sioux Falls, SD, with his wife and daughter.
  • Passage of the American Homecoming Act grants U.S. admission to 10,000 Amerasian children fathered by U.S. citizens.


  • LIRS begins a Central American concerns program to respond to the needs of refugees from El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States. It soon expands to cover asylum seekers of any nationality.


  • The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America becomes a partner in Lutheran Church USA with a direct interest in LIRS.


  • LIRS’s first full-time representative takes up the work of covering immigration and refugee issues in Washington, D.C.


  • Donald H. Larsen, an NLC and LCUSA executive, takes the helm of LIRS. His service continues until his sudden death in 1990.


  • Passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act grants U.S. admission to up to 10,000 children fathered by American GIs. Unlike the 1980 American Homecoming Act, this legislation also allows for admission of the children’s mothers and siblings.
  • At 42 “qualified designated entry” sites, some 5,000 eligible undocumented personsare processed for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.


  • With a three-way merger forming the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, LCUSA ends. LIRS continues as an independent agency supported by the ELCA, LC-MS and LELCA.
  • LIRS’s newly constituted board of directors includes one seat for a refugee representative.


  • An immigration attorney joins the LIRS staff to expand legal services to immigrants.
  • An influx of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their country by boat and seeking asylum in other Southeast Asian countries prompts the international community to respond. The International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in Geneva takes place in June 1989 and involves representatives from voluntary agencies, including LIRS. The conference produces a Comprehensive Plan of Action put into effect by the International Conference in Geneva.


  • The landmark Immigration Act of 1990 sets up a Temporary Protected Status for persons fleeing “generalized violence, civil war and natural disasters,” strengthens family unity immigration provisions, and sets an annual immigration ceiling for the first time.
  • The U.S. State Department recognizes LIRS as having the best national refugee resettlement program, a ranking it holds for the next four years.


  • Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., an attorney, becomes the agency’s seventh head, serving until 2009.
  • A military coup ousting Haiti’s democratically elected government prompts the flight of thousands of refugees, many of whom are picked up at sea and returned to Haiti in violation of international law.


  • A trip by members of the board of directors to Liberia, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya increases attention to the continent with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons.


  • The first survivors of “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia, refugees from Bosnia, arrive for resettlement.


  • New immigration reform, welfare reform and anti-terrorism laws greatly restrict the rights and benefits of immigrants and refugees seeking asylum.


  • An escalating increase in detention of migrants and asylum seekers leads LIRS and two partners to form of the Detention Watch Network, which LIRS administers until 2003.
  • LIRS launches RefugeeWorks (later to become Higher), the national center for refugee employment and self-sufficiency, to give technical assistance to refugee employment services providers.


  • LIRS begins providing seed grants to Lutheran churches launching projects that serve refugees and migrants. The first year’s grants go to 12 congregations.


  • Approximately 1,700 ethnic Albanians forced out of Kosovo into Macedonia are resettled by LIRS under a U.S. humanitarian evacuation program.
  • LIRS relocates its headquarters from New York City to The Lutheran Center, a newly constructed office building in Baltimore.
  • LIRS’s six-decade total of refugees resettled reaches 280,000 individuals from all parts of the world and of various faiths.
  • LIRS partners with the Presbyterian Church (USA) to launch a joint Asylum and Immigration Grant Program. Grantees handle 23,000 legal cases and provide rights education to 168,000 detained migrants in the first year of the program.


  • Refugee Council USA forms with LIRS a founding member.
  • A change in the eligibility starting date makes it possible for individuals granted asylum to receive refugee benefits.
  • LIRS begins welcoming “Lost Boys”—young Sudanese refugees who had been separated from their families for a decade or more after fleeing conflict in their homeland. LIRS advocacy is instrumental in U.S. resettlement of the population.


  • LIRS coordinates humanitarian assistance to nearly 1,000 Burmese refugees who had fled to Guam. With LIRS support for legal services, most are granted asylum, and LIRS resettles many.
  • The September 11 terrorist attacks bring the U.S. refugee resettlement program to a standstill. After new federal security measures are implemented, resettlement resumes in mid-December, but the program takes years to fully recover.


  • LIRS launches the Detained Torture Survivor Legal Support Network.


  • The enforcement functions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service are transferred to three bureaus of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security: Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Custody and care of unaccompanied migrant children is shifted to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.


  • LIRS begins serving unaccompanied migrant children in federal custody through the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services.
  • Nearly 30 years after U.S. admission of Vietnamese refugees began, the State Department opens the doors for resettlement of 15,000 ethnic Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand.
  • LIRS begins successful advocacy for U.S. admission of Burmese refugees from camps and settlements in Thailand, India and Malaysia.


  • In response to Hurricane Katrina’s displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents along the southeastern U.S. coast, LIRS creates a guide for congregations and community groups to help people uprooted by the disaster.


  • LIRS successfully advocates for U.S. resettlement of Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees from camps in Nepal.


  • A joint study by LIRS and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children exposes the U.S. practice of detaining whole families of migrants.
  • At the request of UNHCR, LIRS issues a comprehensive report promoting procedural guidelines and recommending standards of care for refugee children.
  • LIRS begins resettlement of Iraqi refugees displaced by the war in their country.
  • LIRS’s Safe Haven program expands as it becomes the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s sole provider of service coordination for unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody.


  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raid a Postville, Iowa, worksite, arresting nearly 400 migrants. The largest raid of its kind in U.S. history, it devastates the community and galvanizes advocates for immigration reform.
  • Be Not Afraid, an LIRS project supported by the ELCA, equips congregations responding to immigrant needs in their communities.


  • LIRS launches the online Action Center, allowing supporters to easily contact their elected officials to better voice their opinions about immigration reform and refugee resettlement.


  • Linda Hartke becomes the eighth person to serve as President and CEO of LIRS.
  • LIRS secures an increase in funding from the U.S. State Department. The “Reception and Placement Grant” LIRS provides to each new refugee doubles from $900 to $1,800 per capita.


  • The Community Conversations initiative brings together immigrants and refugees who have been welcomed and people who are committed to welcoming. Through these connections, LIRS is able to generate ideas that promote innovative initiatives and services.


  • LIRS rebrands and launches Higher, an employment initiative formerly known as RefugeeWorks. Higher focuses on mentoring programs for refugees and forging partnerships with local and national employers.
    An unexpected and unprecedented surge in unaccompanied children crossing the southern border into the United States prompts LIRS to respond. In conjunction with federal and local partners, LIRS works to connect these children with family members, foster homes, and other vital services.
  • LIRS successfully advocates for the reauthorization of both the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
  • By participating in coalition-building and grassroots mobilization, LIRS helps uphold the Maryland DREAM Act.


  • LIRS celebrated 75 years of standing with and advocating alongside migrants and refugees.