U.S. Immigration History: Then and Now

History tends to give good guidance to current policy, and immigration history works as well as any other kind of history. The country’s first limitation on naturalization spawned more or less contemporaneously with the country itself, manifested in the 1790 Naturalization Act. The Act required two years of residence and for the person to be a “free white person” of “good moral character.” In 1870, this naturalization right was extended to people of African origin.

Although already quite restrictive, the law became even more suffocating starting in 1875. People barred from naturalization included criminals, people with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes (presumably, early day human traffickers). It was also around the 1880s when Asians were discriminated against to an extensive, legal scale, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the Immigration Act of 1924 (which set quotas for immigrants based on national origin, with the quota being zero for Asian countries).

Chinese were not allowed to immigrate again until 1943, and other Asians were not permitted until 1952. It was during this time where a presidential commission suggesting discarding the national-origins quota system, only to be ignored by Congress. National immigration was revolutionized in 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which favored family reunification and the acceptance of skilled immigrants rather than national quotas. This was also the first time immigration from the Western Hemisphere was restricted; until this point, practically any European and Latin American could migrate to the United States unimpeded.

Around this time period, a greater consciousness developed for refugees fleeing war violence, particularly the Indochinese, Nicaraguans and Haitians, and a law creating “temporary protective status” was created to shield these people from deportation to countries facing natural disasters and armed conflicts.

It was in 1986 that Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act, at the behest of Reagan, which legalized three million unauthorized immigrants and promised to punish employers who hired unauthorized immigrants. As mentioned in a previous post, this effort was unsuccessful.

The culmination of this long history is the country’s current vacillation between either expanding the rights of unauthorized immigrants in the country or facilitating a path to legality, or the punishment or deportation of those unauthorized immigrants in the country. Which path the U.S. will take in its long and colorful immigration history is yet to be seen.