A “Brief” History of Immigration

While America has been known as the “land of immigrants”, there has been quite a history of immigration restriction. It has varied in its reasoning, approaches, and legitimacy over time.

1850s: The American (“Know Nothing”) Party gains brief influence, their platform is anti-immigration and anti-Catholic, but it loses influence after a dismal performance in the 1856 presidential election, with Northern members bolting for the GOP while Southern members would vote for the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860.

1875: The Page Act passes, which is the first law in United States history restricting immigration from groups of people. This law prohibits immigrants from Asia coming to the United States to be forced laborers, Asian women who engage in prostitution, and all people who were convicted of crimes in their own country. The law’s effect resulted in the near complete exclusion of immigration of Chinese women. The ratio of Chinese men to women would be highly unbalanced until after World War II.

1882: With fears of the “yellow peril” at a height, Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act. This bill had previously been vetoed by President Hayes, but Chester Arthur signs it. This law bars Chinese from immigrating to the United States for ten years.

1888: The Scott Act passes, prohibiting Chinese laborers who were abroad or who planned to travel from returning to the United States. This particularly vicious law left 20,000-30,000 Chinese stranded. The law was upheld in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889).

1892: The Geary Act passes, requiring all Chinese residents of the U.S. to carry a resident permit. This effectively means they must always be carrying a sort of passport. Penalties for violation were deportation or one year of hard labor. It also extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten more years. Chinese were also disallowed from bearing witness in court and could not receive bail in habeas corpus proceedings. The Supreme Court upheld this law in Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893).

1897: Congress passes but Grover Cleveland vetoes a bill requiring literacy tests for immigrants.

1902: The Chinese Exclusion Act is extended indefinitely.

1903: Anarchists are excluded from immigration as are individuals who believe in the violent overthrow of governments or the assassination of public officials. This measure is effectively a response to the McKinley assassination.

1906: Learning the English language becomes a requirement for naturalization.

1907: Theodore Roosevelt negotiates an informal agreement with Japan called the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, in which the US would not impose limits on Japanese immigration and would not segregate their students but Japan would prohibit further emigration to the United States.

1913: Congress passes a literacy bill for immigration, but on Valentine’s Day, William Howard Taft vetoes it.

1915: The Senate adds a provision to a proposed immigration bill that bars blacks completely from immigrating. After a vigorous campaign to defeat the measure from Booker T. Washington and the NAACP, the measure is overwhelmingly defeated in the House.

1917: Congress is finally successful in passing a bill requiring literacy tests for immigrants, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Immigrants who are illiterate in their own language are barred from the US. This law also created the “Asiatic Barred Zone”, which prohibited immigrants from a certain section of Asia from immigrating. Among the exempt were Japan and the Philippines.

1921: The Emergency Quota Act is passed, setting a 3% cap on immigration as of the 1910 census.

1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 is passed, with an explicit purpose of keeping America’s demographics majority Northern and Western European. This was accomplished by setting quotas of 2% of the number of people from the country already living in the United States as of the 1890 census, before extensive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe occurred. Opponents would have rather used the year 1910 for such a quota, which would allow significantly more of these immigrants to come in. Works such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Klansman Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) were highly influential in obtaining public support for this measure. There was also an on-going fear of foreign radicals, given a number of bombings and that one had assassinated a president. This law also added Japan to the Asiatic Barred Zone despite opposition from the Coolidge Administration to it, wanting to keep diplomatic relations on good ground. Interestingly enough, no caps were imposed on Central or Southern American immigration. Young Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) is a staunch opponent of the measure, and he will be instrumental in its later undoing.

1943: Madame Kai-Shek conducts a goodwill tour of the United States and speaks before the House of Representatives, praising America as an ally and its Lend-Lease program. Recognizing the inconsistency of having China as an ally and flat out banning immigration from there, Congress passes the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first legislation that passed since 1875 that served to expand rather than limit immigration, but immigration quotas were still very low for them.

1952: The McCarran-Walter Act passes. Although this measure eliminates racial prohibitions on immigration and thus increases immigration from Asian countries, it is sponsored by two restrictionist politicians, Sen. Pat McCarran (D-Nev.) and Rep. Francis Walter (D-Penn.), and thus the measure reinforced the national origins quota system. It thus earns the opposition of President Truman and liberals, with the measure passing over his veto.

1965: The Hart-Celler Act passes and is signed into law by President Johnson. This measure abolishes the national origins quota system, enabling high levels of immigration that ultimately result in major changes in America’s racial and ethnic demographics.

1986: President Reagan signs into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act to address illegal immigration. Major provisions of the law include amnesty for millions of immigrants and employer sanctions for employing illegal immigrants. This law is supposed to reduce illegal immigration, but the result is the opposite for numerous reasons, with illegal immigrants rising in numbers in the United States from 5.5 million in 1986 to 11.1 million in 2013 (Plumer, 2013).

2005-present: Multiple immigration reform proposals were brought forth with support from Presidents Bush and Obama, but are defeated due to insufficient political support. As of 2018, no major immigration law has passed since 1986, yet the controversy surrounding it is the highest it has been in ages and shows no signs of letting up.

2017: President Trump issues Executive Order 13769, which temporarily stopped immigration from 7 majority-Muslim nations on grounds of national security. Although the order is overturned by lower federal courts, the Supreme Court permitted the second version of the order to go into effect in December. One of his central campaign themes had been to build a border wall, and as of writing, it has not been authorized yet by Congress.


Madame Chiang Kai-Shek of China Addressed the House of Representatives. The United States House of Representatives.


Plumer, B. (30 January 2013). Congress tried to fix immigration back in 1986. Why did it fail? The Washington Post.

Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/01/30/in-1986-congress-tried-to-solve-immigration-why-didnt-it-work/?utm_term=.82a70e1d5987

Summary of Immigration Laws, 1875-1918. The State University of New York.

Retrieved from http://people.sunyulster.edu/voughth/immlaws1875_1918.htm

The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act). Office of the Historian of the Department of State.

Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act

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