A Brief History of Immigration Policy in the U.S.

Created: 21 February, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
4 min read
Although President Obama once

called immigration “the most important domestic policy agenda of his second term,” political discord -- particularly within the Republican ranks -- has slowed progress on immigration policy to a snail’s pace. Major disagreements lie in decisions over amnesty for illegal aliens, which tea party groups ardently oppose, and border security.

However, immigration policies have a long and complicated history in the U.S., which date back to the early republic. While America freely and openly encouraged immigration during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after the Civil War, when immigration began to surge, the Supreme Court ruled that the regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility.

The economic decline during this period prompted Congress to begin to utilize this newly recognized power. The Immigration Act of 1882 required that each immigrant pay 50 cents (would be approximately $12 today) for their entry, but also began to block people who were deemed “idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge"; the latter being open for broad interpretation in the coming years.

Further, as Chinese workers arrived in droves to work on projects like the transcontinental railroad, competition and resentment among American workers eventually prompted the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887, which prohibited laborers from entering the U.S.

The early twentieth century only saw another surge of immigration where, from 1900-1924, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived during what is known as the “Great Wave.” However, during this huge wave of immigration, Congress passed even more restrictions on immigration. In 1903, polygamists and political radicals were excluded from entering the country; and in 1907, people with physical or mental defects, as well as unaccompanied children were added to the list. Japanese immigration also received restrictions in what is now known as the Gentleman’s Agreement.

While immigration slowed during World War I, it picked up again in earnest after the war, prompting Congress to institute a national-origins quota system, wherein each nationality was subjected to a quota based, in part, on U.S. census figures. These new policies also required an enforcement arm, so Congress created the U.S. Border Patrol in the Immigration Service.

Not until 1965 did the nationality-based quota system begin to change. In 1965, Congress designed a preference system, allowing families who had some members in the U.S. to receive preference, along with skilled workers. This new system shifted the focus of immigration from the previous European majority to reflect the new reality of immigrant populations arriving from Asia and Latin America. Anna O. Law, an expert on immigration policy, has argued that this law was a “watershed act” and “one of the most liberal and expansive reforms to the American system.”

Another major shift in U.S. immigration policy occurred in 1980 when the U.S. passed the Refugee Act of 1980 which allowed for individuals who were being persecuted to seek asylum in the United States. While classes of protected people were always allowed in U.S. immigration law, this new act allowed the U.S. to match international law standards.

In 1986, Congress once again acted on immigration, passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants. The act allowed amnesty for some aliens, but also enforced current immigration quotas against illegal entrances by increasing border controls and instituting stronger deportation measures, combined with employer sanctions.

Four years later, Congress refocused on legal immigration and passed the 1990 Immigration Act to increase the total level of available visas by 40 percent. In order to increase the diversity of immigrants entering the country -- with a focus on family reunification and employer preference -- the law opened the door for more immigrants from under-represented countries.

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At the same time, Congress was also beginning to worry about the increase in illegal immigrants. In 1996, lawmakers passed the Illegal Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act to hire more border patrol, as well as increase the penalty for entering the country illegally.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 only served to increase security along the U.S. borders and restrictions on immigration, placing more border control with the military. Then, in 2002, President Bush passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act which integrated the INS’ systems to respond to terrorist threats.

Since then, a series of debates have dominated the immigration policy terrain. In 2010, Arizona signed a controversial bill which expanded the authority to combat illegal immigration by classifying illegal immigration as a state crime and allowing the police to actively question anyone “reasonably suspected” of being undocumented. Critics claimed the law allowed for widespread racial profiling. The Supreme Court upheld the “show me your papers” clause of the law in 2012, but rejected measures that would have allowed illegal immigrants to receive criminal penalties for seeking work.

While President Obama nudged Republicans to produce a viable plan on immigration, the party appears split on certain key issues. It is still unclear how high of a priority it is for GOP lawmakers to find another policy before the 2014 midterm elections.

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