During the early part of the 20th century, concern was mounting around the world for women and children separated from the heads of their families who had migrated to America. The women and children attempting to reunite their families faced long journeys, health problems, exploitation, difficulties in finding accommodation, confusing regulations and language barriers. These circumstances, and the need for an organized response, were the subject of two international conventions convened by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the first in 1914 in Stockholm, the second in 1920 in Chambery, France.
In 1921, the YWCA undertook a survey of the needs of migrating persons and set up service bureaus in several countries where cooperative action at two or more points might be achieved. Offices were established in Prague, Warsaw, Paris, Athens and Constantinople; in the main European departure points of Piraews, Antwerp, Cherbourg, Le Havre and Marseilles; and on Ellis Island. The service bureaus found themselves dealing with a gamut of human problems requiring service between countries. The World YWCA recognized that the need was for service to families, rather than to young women only, and that such service could be given most effectively through a nonsectarian international organization.
Several international and many national bodies were approached to develop and expand these critically needed services. Before long it became clear that entirely new foundations must be built under this widely functioning program. An ongoing committee of four volunteers gave birth to a sponsoring committee that secured a grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial to match individual gifts.
From these early days, the federation’s member agencies, staffs, volunteers, and supporters have been bound by a shared vision of a world in which children and peoples across international borders thrive and fulfill the promise of tomorrow. Those who joined together to achieve the mission of what is today International Social Service have understood the importance of service to individuals and could see the need for its practice across frontiers. Those who were interested in forging links among countries, and could appreciate the need for a nonpolitical international network of service to families and children, worked together to establish the ISS federation.
In response to the millions impacted by World War II, ISS—USA escalated its service and intervention with refugees and other displaced persons. In 1939 the USA branch coordinated an effort to provide homes for refugee children in the United States, and to arrange for British children threatened by German bombing to take temporary shelter with American families. In 1940, the agency assisted in settling over one hundred thousand German and Eastern European refugees in the Dominican Republic. By the mid 1940s ISS—USA had concluded a demonstration project on displaced persons transferred from a refugee camp in Italy to one in New York. Also during this period, the agency undertook a project to resettle refugees from Germany and Western Europe who were unable to return to their home countries.
The end of the war brought new challenges for the federation. It was a time of reviving old branches, founding new ones and creating programs and services that responded to needs created in the wake of the war. The federation turned their focus to illegitimate children of foreign service men, returning servicemen and prisoners of war, refugees and displaced persons, unaccompanied children and youth outside their own countries, and other individuals and families impacted by the war. To reflect the new needs that the federation was responding to, the ISS governing body—the International Council—held its first meeting in 1946 and changed the name of the organization from International Migration Service to International Social Service. ISS was a strong voice in the chorus that successfully advocated for the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Korean conflict in the early 1950s and the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution provided the next opportunities for ISS to respond to large scale human suffering among displaced persons.
For decades, ISS had assisted in the intercountry adoption of children, usually by relatives or friends. ISS—USA’s work with adoption increased, however, with the passage of the Refugee Relief Act in 1953, which provided for the nonquota immigration of refugees of various categories. Again ISS—USA was in the lead, working with other agencies and experts help develop procedures and regulations for implementation of the act. In addition, in 1955 the Refugee Relief office at the Department of State contracted with ISS—USA to provide assistance to complete the adoption process of children immigrating to the United States.
ISS—USA’s adoption expertise in the 1950s resulted in two research studies in collaborative efforts with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The first study, “Korean-American Children in American Adoptive Homes,” was conducted in 1957 by ISS—USA and published by CWLA. In 1958 ISS—USA and the CWLA jointly sponsored “A Study of Proxy Adoptions.”
In the 1960s ISS—USA added a medical social work unit to the agency. The agency was also active with a number of U.N. committees, including the Population Commission, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and the Human Rights Commission. In 1963 ISS-USA assisted the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the recruitment and training of international caseworkers.
In 1975 ISS—USA became involved with the resettlement of refugees from Indochina as part of the United States refugee program. This program changed the shape of U.S. refugee policies and resettlement strategies. The agency sponsored a forum to focus on the special problems of unaccompanied refugee minors, which led to the creation of a Task Force on Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.
World circumstances during the 1980s called for expanded advocacy and public awareness efforts. ISS—USA became active with InterAction (the American Council for Voluntary International Action), the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, the National Conference on Social Welfare, and the U.S. Committee of the International Council on Social Welfare. ISS—USA also served on the U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on the Inter-American Convention on Adoption in preparation for a meeting of the Organization of American States in La Paz, Bolivia, on the topic of Inter-American Adoption . In 1982 ISS—USA was a member of the Advisory Committee to the U.S. Immigration Service. The Committee was mandated by Congress to monitor implementation of the Amerasian Legislation of 1982. The Advisory Committee was involved in examining the need for amendments to the original legislation. In May 1983 ISS-USA affiliated with the American Council for Nationalities Service, which was involved with services to refugees and immigrants. In 1984 the Public Welfare Foundation funded the ISS Taskforce on Unaccompanied Minors which provided a forum for the exchange of information and the identification of new populations at risk.
In 1990 ISS—USA was involved in the development of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of Intercountry Abduction. ISS—USA participated in the meetings leading to the formation of the Hague Convention on International Adoption. ISS—USA also convened the Committee on Minors in Migration that met in Washington, D.C., and involved federal, state and local public- and private-sector representatives. In 1994, ISS – USA affiliated with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). On July 1, 2004, ISS –USA ended its subsidiary relationship to LIRS and was re-established as an independent agency.