A capsule history
For the first 100 years of U.S. history, there were no federal laws regulating immigration. While the Naturalization Act of 1790 established that only white individuals were eligible for citizenship (a law later revised by the 14th Amendment), there were no limitations or rules placed on individuals entering the country to live and work, and the country operated with open borders.
The first piece of federal immigration legislation was the Page Act in 1875 which, in effect, prohibited the immigration of Chinese women to the U.S. Chinese immigration had been a major issue in the west for decades, as the Chinese population soared with miners, railroad workers, and other laborers. In California, in particular, there was rising agitation about how culturally different the Chinese population was from the white population and fear over the perception that they were stealing jobs from the white population. There was not enough national energy behind the push to bar Chinese nationals altogether, so the Page Act emerged as a piece of legislation palatable to enough politicians for passage. It aimed to cut off the ability of Chinese workers to bring their wives into the country, which, in effect, stunted how much the Chinese population could grow.
As Reconstruction fell apart in the south after the Civil War, agitation about the Chinese population in California gained steam across the country, particularly with southern politicians who began eyeing the possibility of rolling back the rights of recently freed slaves. Many of them made the political calculation that if they supported the idea of rolling back the rights of the Chinese population in California and limiting how many Chinese could immigrate to the country, then there might be reciprocity from western politicians when southern states put forward legislation to roll back the rights of recently freed slaves. The result was the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers, whether male or female, from entering the country for 10 years. The act was renewed 10 years later — and remained in place for more than 60 years.
Otherwise, immigration to the U.S. continued largely under an open-door policy. This began to change, however, in the first two decades of the 20th Century, as various laws were instituted to put limits on immigration by various groups of people: anarchists, “sexual deviants,” certain classes of diseased and disabled individuals, and some ethnic groups. Most notably, the Immigration Act of 1917 put further restrictions on immigrants coming from Asia, imposing reading tests and limits on how many members of a family could enter the country.
In the wake of World War I, Americans became increasingly uneasy about immigrants coming from Eastern and Southern Europe, and the open-borders policy began to shift. The eugenics movement was getting off the ground in the U.S. and, years before it would influence Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich, it had a major influence on U.S. immigration policy. Scientists and politicians alike zeroed in on Western European heritage and culture as the ideal aspiration for the country. The Immigration Act of 1924 was the first piece of legislation to put a cap on immigration into the country. It created a limit on how many immigrants could be admitted from every country: no more than 3 percent of the total number of people from that country already residing in the U.S. (If there were 100 Germans in the country, no more than 3 more could be admitted annually.) . What’s more, the law established the National Origins Formula, which apportioned how many individuals could come from each country. It prioritized Western European countries and excluded the Chinese and many other non-Anglo populations.
For the next two decades there were few changes to U.S. immigration policy. The National Origins Formula determined who was allowed into the country every year. The 1940s, however, brought two major developments. With so many working-age men leaving their jobs to fight in World War II, there was a need to fill out the labor market. Women stepped up to take on much of the responsibility, as did immigrants. In 1942, the Bracero Program was initiated, allowing Mexican laborers to work in the U.S., mostly in agriculture. The year after that, as China and the U.S. formed an alliance to fight the Japanese in the war, the Magnuson Act was passed, finally repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and making it possible for Chinese nationals to enter the country.
When the war ended and white men began reentering the workforce in large numbers, animosity arose toward Mexican laborers who had come to the U.S. under the Bracero Program. The animosity culminated in “Operation Wetback” in 1954, when more than 1 million Mexicans were expelled from the country in military-style raids, which ostensibly targeted braceros with expired visas. Even after the raids, though, the demand for Mexican labor endured and so did the Bracero Program that brought them into the country, which lasted until 1964.
Again, several years passed without any significant changes to immigration policy. Then came the civil rights movement, which included leaders like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. They advocated for immigrants, particularly those who were taking on some of the most grueling work in the country without any of the benefits of legal status or a social safety net, and soon gained national influence doing so. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed the National Origins Formula and, in effect, ended the systemic discrimination against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Asia and Latin America. The bill had many key provisions. Chief among them was empowering the Labor Department to identify labor needs across different industries and allocate annual caps on worker visas for each industry — a system that has only grown in the decades since.
In the years after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the U.S. economy’s demand for inexpensive immigrant labor consistently exceeded visa allocations and undocumented workers continued to enter the country, often in migratory patterns, returning to their home countries when seasonal work ended. By the 1980s the country’s undocumented population had grown to an estimated 3 million, which fueled the political will to pass the Immigration and Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA, as it is commonly known, provided a pathway to legal status through worker visas for most of the undocumented population at the time and it established penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers. The hope was that these penalties would discourage the hiring of undocumented workers and, in the long run, discourage the workers from entering the country unlawfully. But enforcement was not stringent and hiring of the undocumented continued, largely unabated.
The Immigration Act of 1990 was, in many ways, a follow-up to IRCA. It increased the federal caps on immigration that had been set by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It also established programs that let families bring in relatives, as well as diversity and lottery visa programs designed to allocate more visas to immigrants from countries that had relatively low allocations.
After 9/11, immigration became almost entirely a security issue. Attention focused on border protection and measures to help identify terrorism suspects who might try to enter the country illegally. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, which remains to this day the parent agency for all immigration-related agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Subsequent acts, such as the Real ID Act of 2005, further empowered the DHS to waive existing laws in order to build more barriers, principally along the U.S.-Mexican border, adjust the level of temporary worker visas granted and tighten laws on the asylum application process.
In the decades since September 11, 2001, the federal government has not passed any significant immigration legislation. The country operates under a patchwork of laws and visa programs that have accumulated over many decades. Various iterations of the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to certain undocumented individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children, have stalled at different stages of the legislative process. With no passable bill in sight, President Barack Obama used an executive order in 2012 to establish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, thereby granting temporary protection to those people who would have been granted permanent residency by the DREAM Act.
Under President Donald Trump, immigration legislation continues to be elusive for congress and executive orders remain the means by which our immigration policies take shape. President Trump has instituted several changes to federal policy, the most significant being a ban on visits from individuals traveling from predominately Muslim countries and a “zero tolerance” policy that places in detention, pending legal action, anyone caught crossing a U.S. border without permission. His Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, require anyone applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border to do so from northern Mexico.
For the past two decades, the U.S. has admitted roughly 1 million immigrants on an annual basis, though this overall number fluctuates from year to year. In 2016, for example, 1.18 million immigrants gained lawful status in the U.S.: 618,078 of these individuals were new arrivals in the country while 565,427 were individuals who were already in the U.S. and had their status adjusted.
Approximately 48 percent of those who gained lawful status in 2016 were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 20 percent were family sponsored, 13 percent were asylum-seekers, 12 percent were employer-based preferences, 4 percent were part of the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, 1.5 percent were victims of crime, 1 percent were Special Immigrant Visas related to the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another .5 percent were highly specialized cases related to diplomatic agreements with particular regions and foreign governments.
Under the Trump administration there has been a slight downward trend in the number of individuals granted lawful status: 1.12 million in 2017 and 1.096 million in 2018. This trend looks likely to continue as the Trump administration has reduced several eligible categories, including the annual cap on asylum-seekers, which was 110,000 under the Obama administration and has now been reduced to 18,000. Some of the most recent reporting indicates that the government admitted only two asylum seekers in March of 2020.