History of Immigration Laws in the U.S.

History of Immigration Laws in the U.S.

With the exception of Native Americans, all persons living in the United States are descended from immigrants or slaves who came to the country during the last 400 years. By the late seventeenth century, foreign-born persons constituted seventy-five percent of the American population.

Initially, the U.S. government encouraged open immigration in the interest of settling as much territory as possible. Following the Civil War, however, states began to pass their own immigration statutes. The United States Supreme Court determined that immigration came under federal jurisdiction in 1875, and Congress established the Immigration Service in 1891.

Most early immigration laws were instituted in order to control the composition of the U.S. population. In 1790, Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which effectively limited immigration to persons of European and Caucasian descent. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made immigration from China illegal. This law was repealed by the 1943 passage of the Magnuson Act. There were some who also proposed restrictions against people from European nations, including Ireland, Italy and Poland.

In addition to ethnicity, the U.S. government was also concerned with the moral composition of the population. Between 1872 and 1890, Congress passed laws restricting the immigration of, among other groups, prostitutes, criminals, the mentally ill and financially unstable persons. In the late nineteenth century, the government became concerned about the potential for foreign laborers to negatively affect employment or payment rates for native laborers. Laws passed in 1885 and 1887 were among the first to restrict immigration based on economic concerns. Labor issues remain a major part of the modern immigration debate.

From 1900 to 1921, Congress established a "quota system," which granted permission to a set number of individuals from each ethnic group to immigrate. Certain ethnic groups, including people from most Asian nations, were excluded entirely. The number of immigrants from each ethnic group was determined according to the census. The government also developed provisions intended to promote the immigration of certain types of laborers whose skills were lacking in the existing population.

In 1924, as concerns about border security increased, Congress established the first office of border control to monitor immigration from Canada and Mexico. Immigration rates dropped substantially between 1925 and 1945, especially during the Great Depression (1929-1940). In 1948, Congress made temporary revisions to immigration policy to allow people left homeless by World War II to come to the United States.

In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, which formally repealed any remaining restrictions based on ethnicity, and opened immigration to people from any nation. Reflecting recent political developments, the government began to restrict immigration based on political ideology: those with alleged ties to Communist organizations were actively prevented from entering the United States.

In 1965, Congress abandoned the quota system and based immigration acceptance on the relative "need" of each applicant. Under the new system, a certain number of people were allowed entrance for labor, family unification and political asylum. The new system greatly restricted immigration from Mexico and Central and South America, and led to an increase in illegal immigration.

During the 1980s, illegal immigration and border security became the chief issues in the immigration debate. In 1986, Congress granted additional powers to law enforcement agencies to allow for the punishment of persons who aided or facilitated illegal immigration.

In 1990, Congress made it illegal for the U.S. government to deny entrance into the United States based on political beliefs, ideologies or associations. At the same time, Congress voted to allow a 40 percent increase in the number of immigrants lawfully permitted per year. In 1996, Congress addressed illegal immigration from Latin America with laws that doubled the number of border control agencies, added fences in areas with heavy traffic and increased penalties for harboring or aiding illegal immigrants.

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