Pacific Link: The KQED Asian Education Initiative
History Timelines Lesson Plans Community Resources

Angel Island

US Immigration

US Foreign Policy


U.S. Immigration

A Brief History of Immigration Laws from the 19th Century Into the 20th Century

It can be said that the immigration history of the United States is the history of the United States. Whether they came as conquerors, settlers, slaves, contract laborers, entrepreneurs or asylum seekers, most Americans have a recent history of having come from somewhere else.

Who came to this country and under what circumstances, what terms? Who was allowed to stay and who got thrown out? The answers to these questions have always been complicated, if not, at times, convoluted. What follows is an overview of the major pieces of legislation that have regulated the inflow of immigrants entering the United States from the 19th Century to the 1965 Immigration Act, which finally removed all quotas based specifically on national origins. What this overview does not cover is the ways in which people might have found loopholes -- to enter the country, to deny entrance, to deport someone -- in the implementation of the laws, given their complexity and often uneven interpretation. Court cases that forced the nation to define and refine terms that governed basic identity are also not covered.

The 1790 Naturalization Act stipulated that foreign-born persons could become citizens of the United States only if they were free and White. After the Civil War, this act was challenged successfully on behalf of Blacks. Later, during the first half of the 1900s, a series of court cases made the challenge on behalf of other non-Whites, in particular Chinese, Japanese and Indians. But in each case, they were denied. Even in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), where it was pointed out that Hindu Indian identity was derived from Aryan and therefore Caucasian roots, the Supreme Court ruled that was not equal to being White.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment declared, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.‚" This amendment was the basis for the majority of non-Whites' becoming American citizens.

Until the late 1800s, the United States had a nearly completely open immigration policy. Individual states generally handled the oversight of immigration. Not until 1882 did immigration become a federal issue, with the 1882 Immigration Act. This act declared immigration to be a federal concern, imposed a head tax of 50 cents per entering immigrant, and barred "idiots, lunatics, convicts and persons likely to become a public charge.‚"

The first wave of immigrants entering the United States after the American Revolution were mostly from northwestern Europe -- England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway and other Scandinavian lands. The second wave of immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe -- Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal, Poland, Rumania, Russia, Italy, Spain and Turkey.

The years 1900 to 1920 saw the most dramatic increase of immigration, with more than 14.5 million people admitted -- the largest number ever to be admitted in such a short period. Sixty percent of these immigrants came from Russia, Italy and Austria-Hungary. The U.S. Census recorded the total number of foreign-born individuals in the United States in 1910 to be 14.7 percent of the population, as compared with 11 percent in 2000.

Restrictions on immigration were very much tied to labor interests. Employers wanted to recruit foreign workers who would work for lower wages, whereas laborers and the burgeoning labor union movement wanted more restrictions on immigration so as not to undermine their demands for better wages and worker benefits.

The labor movement's first victory was the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which completely barred any further new immigration of laborers from China. Diplomats, merchants and students were still allowed to enter. Those already in the country were allowed to retain citizenship if they had achieved it and were allowed to bring in direct family members. The 1885 and 1887 contract-labor laws restricted the ability of employers to import large numbers of laborers in order to depress domestic wages. Contract laborers were allowed to stay only one year.

Immigration laws were also tied to international diplomacy, as with the United States and Japan. Japan, as a matter of national pride and not wanting its nationals to face the type of discrimination that the Chinese had endured, entered into a treaty with the United States known as the 1907 Gentleman's Agreement. Japan and the United States mutually agreed to regulate the number and type of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Japan allowed only the educated and business class to migrate, thus restricting laborers, unskilled or skilled.

In the aftermath of World War I, reactionary nativism became the dominant strain in American politics. Minorities of many backgrounds came under attack as Americans saw the instabilities of the outside world as solely foreign elements, whether the perceived threat was cheaper immigrant labor, Russian Bolshevik communism or Italian anarchism.

The 1917 Immigration Act was the first significant piece of legislation that restricted immigration in general ways. Until then, restrictions had largely been handled piecemeal. The new law contained a number of stipulations. All immigrants over 16 years old had to be literate in their own language, although you could be excused from this if at least one direct family member was literate. It specified an "Asiatic barred zone,‚" using degrees of latitude and longitude to block South and Southeast Asians from entering. People from far eastern Russia and Persia (Iran), however, were allowed entry. The definitions of the mental, physical and moral "defects‚" that were grounds for exclusion became broader, to enable the exclusion of more people. And finally, antiradical provisions were made more severe.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 produced the "Red Scare‚" when Americans feared that Communism would spread from Russia to the United States. Immigration from Russia therefore became more limited, and a wave of deportations ensued. The Justice Department and the new General Intelligence Division decided to deport individuals who were considered "radical aliens‚" and began raiding groups like the Union of Russian Workers. In 1920, some 5,000 individuals were arrested without warrants across the country, many of them held without charges.

In addition to rashes of criminal discriminatory incidents across the country, the backlash was also played out with several stages of restrictions on immigration. There had been a surge in the flow of immigrants to the United States after the war, 65 percent from southern and eastern Europe. Congress reacted with the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, which kept new arrivals at 3 percent of existing foreign-born numbers of any nationality from the 1910 Census. In 1924, the new quota became even more restricted -- 2 percent of any existing foreign-born of the 1890 Census. In 1929, the law was changed to base the quotas on the 1920 Census, with the limit of about 150,000 allowed to enter altogether.

The 1924 law also created a category of nonquota immigrants -- those persons born in the Western Hemisphere. The number of migrants from Canada and Mexico grew at this time.

In 1943, Congress repealed many of the laws that had barred immigration from Asia, but the quotas remained very low -- 105 individuals from China, 100 from the Philippines and 100 from India.

The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act continued reforms to the era of ethnic and racial exclusion by finally removing the restriction on naturalization. Although the national origin system remained in place and quotas were raised, the bias toward favoring immigration from Europe over Asia continued. Nonetheless, there was no longer a category of "aliens ineligible for citizenship‚" based on their ethnicity.

Not until 1965, under President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, was the national origins quota system abolished and replaced with new quotas for the Eastern and Western hemispheres, with preference given to immediate family members of citizens and skilled workers. Finally, Asian immigrants were allowed to enter the country on a more equal footing with people from other parts of the world.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]