Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Immigration History: A National Policy

Previous: Immigration and the Nomination of Abraham Lincoln

Up to this point, we have been able to move quite rapidly through American history, in large part because there was no national policy. All that changed in 1875, when Congress made it illegal for criminals or prostitutes to enter the country. This marks the first true restriction on immigration adopted by the Federal Government, but it was shortly followed by more. In 1882 a fifty cent tax was imposed in all immigrants and Congress prohibited entry by any "convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." Also in 1882, Congress pass the first of a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts, which eventually resulted in a virtual total bar on Chinese immigration. A Bureau of Immigration was established within the Department of Treasury in 1894 (previously the Commission of Immigration had operated under the Department of State per the 1864 Act to encourage Immigration). Anarchists were prohibited in 1903 (32 Stat. 1213) and the Bureau of Immigration was moved to the Department of Labor that same year. Illiterates were barred in 1917 (over President Wilson's veto).

In 1921 quotas were adopted, which was the first time an across the board numerical limit was adopted. This act attempted to preserve the then-current racial balance in the nation by limiting immigration from any country to 3% of that country's population in the United States as recorded in the 1910 Census.

Since these were an emergency measure, they were quickly replaced by the 1924 Immigration Act, which marks the first comprehensive application-based immigration system. Since it is so foundational we'll return to it in detail at a later date. In the meantime, there is still that nagging unresolved constitutional question.

Next: The Constitutional Question (link will be provided upon publication)


Austin T. Fragomen & Steven C. Bell, Immigration Primer (1985).

Michael C. LeMay & Elliott Robert Barkan (ed.), U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History (1999).

University of Washington-Bothell, U.S. Immigration Legislation Online.
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