Since 1875, Congress has played the major role in determining U.S. immigration law and policy. After a century of unrestricted immigration, Congress began passing laws limiting entry of “undesirables” in 1875 and by national origin during the 1880’s. The major pieces of immigration legislation in 1924, 1952, 1965, and 1986 reflect the contours of American history and beliefs.
Congressional laws regarding immigration clearly follow the general shape of American history. When the U.S. Congress began restricting immigration during the 1880’s, it did so largely in reaction to an outcry against the changing demographics of immigration. Chinese workers were accused of taking American jobs; poor immigrants were seen as coming from the crowded cities of southern and eastern Europe, unlikely to be assimilated in a country made by immigrants from the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The attempt to preserve the traditional, pastoral nature of America reached a crescendo during the 1920’s as complicated
The battle against the race-obsessed Axis nations in World War II spurred the United States to relax its own national origins immigration scheme. However, the emergence of the
Comprehensive congressional legislation of immigration began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Congressional action in this field can be mostly attributed to two causes–one juridical, the other political. As to the juridical change, the post-Civil War federal government was finding itself possessed of all kinds of powers that had been previously left to the states. As to the political changes, Congress was subjected for the first time to great pressure to restrict immigration, both as to overall numbers and as to national origin. The political battles in Congress and between the federal branches were intense. Over the next seventy-five years, Congress would continue to allow the entry and naturalization of millions of immigrants. However, it would attempt through legislation to shape both the ethnic composition and the beliefs of the new Americans.
The power of Congress over immigration was clarified in the historic Supreme Court case of
In 1882, Congress extended the immigration exclusions to “lunatics,” “idiots,” and paupers. In addition, Congress enacted its first exclusion based on national origin. American attitudes toward immigration were undergoing a sea change, reflecting changes in both the nation’s beliefs and the immigration population. The
In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed one of the mostly discriminatory pieces of legislation in U.S. history–the aptly named Chinese Exclusion Act. This early twentieth century illustration from Puck suggests five ways in which the Chinese man being kicked (“John”) might get around the law to enter the United States–as an anarchist, as an Irishman, as an English wife-hunter, as a yacht racer, or as a Sicilian. The joke underlying this cartoon was the fact that all five alternative immigrant types were also unpopular in the United States. In later years, Congress would enact immigration laws restricting additional immigrant groups.
In addition, the composition of the immigrants was changing. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England and Scotland were the chief sources of immigration. In the first half of the nineteenth century, millions of Irish and Germans were added to the mix, many of whom represented the first large-scale immigration of Roman Catholics to the United States; the
Through the following decades, Congress passed additional exclusionary laws against Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Indian nationals that together constituted an effort to stem an influx of immigrants from Asia. The
With the end of World War I in 1918, pressure on Congress to pass immigration restriction was revived. In May, 1919, Washington State congressman
In 1924, Congress passed the
Under the complicated provisions of the 1924 act, the year 1929 saw another change in the calculation of national origin. Again reflecting a more nativist sentiment brought on in part by the disillusion of post-World War I America, the new calculation was aimed to prevent further dilution of the nation’s Anglo-Saxon majority. The new basis for the national immigration quota was to reflect the national origins of the entire American population as indicated by the census. Under this formulation, 85 percent of the total immigration pool was assigned to northern and western Europe and only 15 percent to eastern and southern Europe.
The onset of World War II in Europe in 1939 was an inopportune moment to limit immigrants from Europe. For example, many Jews who wanted to flee Nazi-occupied territories were denied
With the calamity of World War II, theories of racial superiority that were used to justify the national origins
In 1952, Congress enacted a comprehensive immigration bill, the
To some extent, the emphasis on national origins that had dominated congressional immigration policy since its inception was being displaced by a new requirement: professional skills. Immigrants with desirable work skills were granted one-half of the quota places. Another preference was created for parents, spouses, and children of aliens and citizens. For the first time, naturalization was made possible for all immigrants regardless of race. Reflecting the
In the 1965 amendments, Congress finally rejected the seventy-five-year-old immigration scheme based on national origins, as well as race. Instead, the act emphasized family reunification as the most important factor in immigration admission. Under the act’s more generous provisions for the Western and Eastern hemispheres, millions of immigrants from Latin American and Asia were able to enter the country. In 1976 and 1978, Congress eliminated preferential treatment for residents from nations in the Western Hemisphere and enacted amendments limiting immigration from any one country to 20,000 persons. This was to the obvious disadvantage of people seeking immigration from countries such as Mexico. Under the
In the century of legislation following the Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York decision, Congress had focused on immigration restriction: how many people from which countries should be excluded from immigrating. Beginning in the 1980’s, Congress devoted itself to immigration reform: what to do about the millions of people who had entered the country illegally or who had stayed past their visa dates. The centerpiece of this effort was the
The most important part of the legislation was the granting of amnesty to the estimated 6 million undocumented aliens in the United States. These aliens, who were not otherwise subject to criminal sanctions and deportation, could become permanent residents or citizens but only under stringent circumstances. For example, an alien seeking legalization had to apply within one year of enactment of the statute, establish a period of continuous residence, and meet most of the requirements for admissibility as an immigrant. The 1986 act had other important provisions as well. For the first time, sanctions were applied against employers who hired undocumented aliens. Because of a fear that such sanctions could lead to discrimination against foreign-born residents who were eligible to work, the IRCA also added numerous antidiscrimination provisions. The IRCA also provided for the legalization of certain seasonal agricultural workers.
By the time the IRCA deadline for amnesty had expired on May 4, 1988, the federal government was already widely criticized for the inadequacies of the bill. Fewer than 2 million people had applied for amnesty. The enforcement mechanisms against hiring illegal workers were considered lax. Employers claimed to be confused as to the new hiring rules. They were in the odd position of having to examine certain documents and ask certain questions so as to determine whether the prospective employee was authorized to work in the United States, but they were forbidden from examining other documents and asking similar questions so as to comply with the antidiscrimination provisions. Workers with foreign accents or even foreign appearances complained that they were being discriminated against by wary employers.
As a result, Congress passed a series of amendments to the IRCA known as the
Graham, Otis, Jr. Unguarded Gates: A History of America’s Immigration Crisis. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Controversial work critiquing America’s open immigration history. Huntington, Samuel. Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. A well-known Harvard professor, Huntington argues for a return to the more restrictive immigration laws that characterized the first half of twentieth century America. Hutchinson, E. P. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. Chronological and analytical account of U.S. immigration laws, with extensive annotations. Johnson, Kevin. Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Examines the cyclical history of U.S. immigration law to argue for open borders. King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Thoughtful, academic study of the history of immigration law and policy, with detailed chapters on the Immigration Acts of 1924 and 1965. Includes helpful appendix tables showing immigrant numbers by decade and summarizing the major immigration laws in American history. LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Includes helpfully edited versions of major immigration and naturalization laws enacted by Congress since the nation’s origin, as well as major court decisions and executive orders and proclamations. A must for primary research. Motomura, Hiroshi. Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. An overview of American immigration laws that emphasizes the traditional American preference for generous acceptance and naturalization of immigrants.
History of immigration after 1891
Immigration Act of 1907
Immigration Act of 1917
Immigration Act of 1921
Immigration Act of 1924
Immigration Act of 1990
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
Supreme Court, U.S.