How Has United States Immigration Policy Changed over Time?

How Has United States Immigration Policy Changed over Time?
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Last updated: June 2010

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. This article was published on May 19, 2010.


The debate over the Arizona law about illegal immigrants makes me wonder how difficult it was for my ancestors to immigrate. Was the law different 100 years ago? If so, what’s changed?


For a long time, America’s golden door was pretty much wide open. New arrivals might have had to register once they got here, but that was about it. They didn’t need permission to enter, and nothing kept them out.

Things started to change when steamships made it easier to get here, and immigration increased. In 1882, America’s first immigration law ended unrestricted immigration.

The Chinese Exclusion Act did exactly what the name says—it excluded Chinese from the United States. None could enter, and while those already here could stay, they couldn’t become citizens. Even children born in the U.S. to Chinese parents weren’t granted citizenship until the Supreme Court said so in 1898.

Between 1882 and 1917, American immigration law didn’t change much. Chinese and anarchists couldn’t come in, but just about everybody else could. Then, in 1917, the Chinese exclusion was extended to the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” so that nobody from China, Japan, India, and most Arab countries could enter the U.S. legally. The 1917 law also barred a long list of undesirables, and required immigrants over 16 to be literate.

Immigration law really changed in 1921 and 1924, with quotas that limited the annual number of immigrants allowed from each country. The final limit was set at 2% of the number of people from each country who were living in the U.S. in 1890.

By using the 1890 census, before immigration really took off, this “National Origins Formula” greatly reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe. For example, where about 200,000 Italians had been coming to America each year before 1924, after that the number dropped to about 4,000 annually.

So, until 1921, European immigration to the U.S. was basically unrestricted. If you came from Europe, it was hard to be here illegally.

The quotas that began in the 1920’s did not apply to immigration from Mexico and South America. That immigration, however, was limited by undeveloped transportation. Despite this apparently open southern border, the U.S. periodically “repatriated” immigrants back to Mexico, possibly because of violations of registration or literacy requirements.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. But that “National Origins Formula” limited immigration to 105 entries from China each year.

In 1965 the old quota system was replaced with new limits designed to equalize immigration from around the world. Asian immigration increased, and limits on immigration from Mexico and South America were imposed for the first time.

Today, immigration is highly regulated. In addition to modern quotas and lotteries, there’s complicated rules about what relatives, professions, and refugees we admit. With more hoops to jump through, there are more ways to be denied entry into the U.S, and more ways to be illegal.

Since 1965, seven amnesties have legalized illegal immigrants. The first and biggest, in 1986, legalized 2.7 million people. The last, in 2000, covered 900,000.

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