Immigration legislation in the United States dates back to 1790, where the Naturalization Act of 1790 laid down the rules for naturalized citizenship, as delineated in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. At the time, no restrictions were placed on immigration but citizenship was limited to white persons. By 1795 and 1798, Naturalization Acts were enacted that required individuals to establish the date of initial residency as well as lengthening the required period of residency before becoming a U.S. citizen. In the 1800s, several legislative acts were enacted that placed restrictions on immigration. The Page Act of 1875 was the first federal that prohibited the entry of immigrants considered to be “undesirable.” This included anyone from Asia coming to the U.S. as a contract laborer and all people considered convicts in their original country of residency. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became the first race-based immigration legislation that suspended Chinese immigration and the ban was meant to be in existence for 10 years but was not repealed until December 17, 1943 by the Magnuson Act.
The Naturalization Act of 1906 standardized immigration procedures, making some knowledge of English a requirement and also established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. The Immigration Act of 1917 restricted immigration from Asia by creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” and introduced a reading test for all immigrant over the age of 14 years, with children, wives and elderly people excepted and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 placed annual restrictions on immigration from a given country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the United States in 1910. The Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act, was aimed at freezing immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans, who seemed to immigrating in big numbers since 1890’s. This ban was also extended to Asians. The Immigration Act of 1924 also established the Nations Origin Formula. This basically stated that total annual immigration was capped at 150,000 individuals and this restriction was only applied to individuals from “ quota-nations.”
The Immigration Act was in full force as a law until 1952 when the law was changed to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (or McCarren-Walter Act). This legislation somewhat relaxed immigration from Asia but it gave more power to the government in deporting illegal immigrants suspected of being Communists. This was consistent with anti-Communist tendencies of the time of McCarthyism.
According to some historians, the Immigration Act that really changed the shape and culture of the United States was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (or Hart-Cellar Act). This legislation discontinued quotas based on national origins and at the same time, preference was given to those who had U.S. relatives. What this Immigration Act did was invalidate decades of excluding very systematically immigrants coming to the United States from Asia, Mexico, Latin America and other foreign countries and also transformed the culture, economic and demographic distinctiveness of many urban areas.
The United States is a young, democratic republic that is still evolving. As one can plainly see, its policies on immigration have been mixed, from those that were restrictive to those that liberalized our approach to immigration. But it is a nation of immigrants that contribute to the vitality of our culture, our society and innovative spirit. Establishing and enacting immigration laws will always be a part of the U.S. And depending on the times, it will always have its ups