History of U.S. Immigration Laws

The issue of immigration, especially Mexican and Latin American immigration into the United States, is currently extremely contentious. Frequently opponents of proposals that would enable “illegal” or undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status make assertions such as, “My ancestors came here legally – through Ellis Island - and earned their citizenship, so these illegal aliens should have to do it the same way.” Such claims show a lack of knowledge of the actual history of U.S. immigration law and of the history of U.S. use and abuse of Mexican migrant laborers. This paper is the first of two designed to set that history straight.

The Development of Immigration Law: the legislation of racial preference 

For a century after the founding of the United States, until after the Civil War, there were no laws regulating or restricting immigration into the country. Anyone, from anywhere (African captives excepted) who could find his way to the country was able to enter and start a new life. With industrialization and changes in immigration patterns after the Civil War, this all changed. The history of the U.S. immigration legislation which followed these changes is not a pretty one. It is essentially a racist one of seeking to exclude “undesirables,” primarily those who were not white, Protestant Europeans.

( A summary of all the laws is available at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Exclusion of Chinese and Asians (1875 – 1917) 

Many Chinese men came to the United States as contract workers during the California gold rush of the late 1840’s and 50’s. Later they were hired to work on the railroads being built to span the continent. By 1860, Chinese were the largest immigrant group in California. As the population grew in California and competition for jobs became increased, animosity arose against the Chinese.

Thus, the first group of laws controlling immigration, passed between 1875 and 1917, were designed to prevent more immigration from China, and, ultimately, from other Asian countries. These laws include the Page Act (1875), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and its successors, and the Immigration Act of 1917, which established an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” prohibiting immigration from Eastern Asia.

Federal Systematization of Immigration Controls (1882 – 1892) 

In 1882, the same year as the Chinese Exclusion Act, another Immigration Act was passed giving authority to immigration agents to deny admission to the country to persons deemed to be “convicts, lunatics, idiots or anyone likely to become a public charge.” It also established a tax of fifty cents on each immigrant to pay for immigration services. This law was followed in 1891 with another that established an Office of Superintendent of Immigration responsible for evaluating and processing all immigrants seeking admission to the country.

To implement this law, the federal immigration station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor was constructed. It opened in 1892 and processed twelve million European immigrants in a little over thirty years. The peak was a million immigrants in 1907. All of these immigrants were “legal” because there were no national, ethnic or racial restrictions on immigration from Europe. This unregulated, free-flowing immigration was closed to a virtual trickle in the 1920’s.

National Quotas and Restriction of Southern and Eastern Europeans (Catholics and Jews) (1921- 52) 

After World War I, because of major immigration from southern Europe (Italian Catholics) and eastern Europe (Jews and Slavic Catholics) which had begun in the 1890’s, fears arose that the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) predominance in the United States would be overwhelmed. Laws were passed in the 1920’s to stem this tide and maintain WASP dominance. These included the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.

These two laws continued the exclusion of all Asians from immigrating, based on their being  "non-white" and therefore, under the original Naturalization Act of 1790, ineligible for citizenship.

The acts also established, for the first time, quotas on the number of immigrants from each part of Europe and a cap on total annual immigration. In the first law, the annual quota was set at 3% of the number of people from each country living in the United States in 1910. This reduced southern and eastern European immigration by 75%. In the Act of 1924, the quota was reduced to 2% of the census for each country in 1890. This was maintained until 1929. Thereafter, a total of 150,000 immigrants would be admitted each year according to a “national origins quota system.” The percentage admitted from each country was to be equal to the percentage of its countrymen in the U.S. in the 1920 census.

The Act set no limits on immigration from Latin America.

As an example of how these quotas worked, from 1900 to 1910, about 200,000 Italians immigrated annually. With the imposition of the 1924 quota, 4,000 per year were allowed. At the same time, the annual quota for Germany was over 57,000. 86% of the 155,000 permitted entries were from Northern European countries, with Germany, Britain, and Ireland having the highest quotas.

Immigrant visas had to be obtained in one’s country of origin. A migrant could no longer “just show up at the door” on Ellis Island. Under these laws, during World War II, most European refugees, including Jews fleeing the Holocaust, were refused admission to the United States.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 

This act eliminated specific racial restrictions, such as against Chinese and other Asians, but maintained a national quota system. China was allowed 150 immigrants per year. It also established separate categories of immigrants. Relatives of U.S. citizens were to be admitted without restriction. People with special skills were given special visas. All other immigrants were to be limited to a total of 270,000 per year, divided according to the quota system.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 

This act abolished the national quota system and set a ceiling of 300,000 immigrant visas for non-relatives. This was divided between 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 130,000 from the Western Hemisphere. Countries in the Eastern Hemisphere were limited to a maximum of 20,000  visas per year. This restriction was later applied to Western Hemisphere countries. Family reunification visas were unlimited. This change led to the first large immigrations from Asia and Latin America and, thus, to the changing demographics of the nation.