U.S. Immigration History

U.S. Immigration History

Why are U.S. immigration laws so complex, detailed, and difficult to navigate? The answer lies in the history of how those laws evolved and were shaped by public sentiment, racism, political motives, labor shortages and surpluses, and other historical realities. In this blog post, we consider some of the high-level historical changes to immigration laws in the United States.

1776 - 1875: America’s First 100 Years

In the early years of the United States, there was an “open door policy”. Immigration was mostly unimpeded as the U.S. sought to increase its population and economic growth. Although some states sought to restrict immigration by imposing taxes on landing immigrants and passengers, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that state laws regulating immigration were unconstitutional. Henderson v. Mayor of New York, 92 U.S. 259 (1875). Immigration officially became a federal matter.

1876 - 1917: The First Restrictions on Immigration

Between 1875-1917, the U.S. began enacting laws that excluded certain nationalities and classes of persons from immigrating to the U.S. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 excluded immigration of persons from China. This law was not formally repealed until 1943. Some other examples of exclusionary laws passed during this time period include:

Immigration Act of 1882 - Excluded “idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become public charges”, and imposed a head tax of 50¢. This is considered to be the first general federal immigration law.

Immigration Act of 1891 - Established the Bureau of Immigration and began providing for medical and general inspection of new immigrants. This law excluded immigrants on the basis of contagious disease, crimes involving moral turpitude, polygamy, and for being a pauper.

Immigration Act 1903 - Excluded “epileptics, insane persons, professional beggars, and anarchists”. Also called the Anarchist Exclusion Act, it was drafted in response to the 1901 assassination of President McKinley. 

Immigration Act of 1907 - Excluded feeble-minded persons, unaccompanied children, persons with tuberculosis, and persons with a physical or mental defect that might impact their ability to earn a living. This legislation also established the Dillingham Commission, with the mandate of studying immigration policy.

1917 - 1951: The First Quota Systems were Enacted

This era provided the first examples of the U.S. government using immigration laws to restrict or minimize the number of immigrants migrating from specific countries or regions. At the time, the U.S. was primarily concerned with the influx of immigrants migrating from southern and eastern European countries.

Quota Act of 1921 - Established an annual national origin quota of 3% of the number of foreign-born persons for each nationality as provided by the census. 

Immigration Act of 1924 - Also known as the National Origin Quota Act, this law established a permanent national origin quota. It established a ceiling of 150,000 admissions per year, including a system for issuing visas abroad.

1952 - 1964: The Codification of Immigration Law

Title 8 of the United States Code (the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952) came into effect on June 27, 1952. This was the first time that immigration law became organized within one body of text. Among other things, this legislation provided for:

  • Retaining (and decreasing the percentage of) the national-origin quota system
  • Racial quotas, notably for Asians
  • Preference quotas for skilled labor
  • Deportation procedures
  • Procedures for denaturalization
  • Political grounds for exclusion

1965 - 1985: Changes to Refugee Law

This 20 year period saw considerable change in the laws of refugees and asylum seekers in the United States. In response to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the U.S. created an ideologically neutral procedure for U.S. asylum applications.

Refugee Act of 1980 - Reduced worldwide quota to 270,000 and authorized the admission of an additional 50,000 refugees.

1986 - 1995: The Anti-Drug Era

Over this 10 year period, several anti-drug laws passed within the field of immigration.

Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 - For purposes of exclusion and deportation, drug categories were redefined to include all controlled substances - and it applied retroactively.

Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 - Established grounds for deportation and an expedited deportation process for persons convicted of aggravated felonies. This law barred reentry to the U.S. for ten years for those convicted of aggravated felonies, and expanded the law to provide for deportation for nearly all firearms offenses.

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 - Among other things, established S visas for persons who provide information to law enforcement agencies.

1996 - 2000: Illegal Immigration Reform and Economic Competitiveness

More than 20 immigration statutes and regulations were passed during this roughly four year period. Notable laws related to illegal immigration reform and ensuring the U.S. maintained its economic competitiveness on a global stage.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act - Established enhanced enforcement and security measures with the goal of reducing visa overstays, tracking and apprehending undocumented persons. Created new and far-reaching grounds for inadmissibility, and increased the bar after exclusion to five years (formerly one year). New grounds for deportation and removal procedures were established.

American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act - Changed rules and procedures related to several employment-based visas, including H-1B, EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 visas. This legislation also permitted B visa holders to accept honorariums and payment for incidental expenses in limited circumstances, and amended employment creation (EB-5) law.

2001 - 2005: Immigration Law in the Wake of 9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, several security-related reforms were made to U.S. immigration law.

USA Patriot Act - Among other things, this controversial legislation allowed DOS to share information in visa-lookout databases with foreign governments and redefined “terrorist organization”. It tripled the number of border agents and inspectors along the U.S.-Canada border and required INS to develop an interagency system to conduct background checks for persons applying for visas and/or entering the U.S.

Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act - Required visa-waiver countries to provide machine readable, tamper-resistant passports with biometric and document-authentication identifiers. It also established Chimera, a law enforcement and intelligence-sharing database.

Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act - Amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to require all NIV applicants between 14-79 years of age to submit to an in-person interview before a consular officer.

2006 - 2021: Miscellaneous Changes Over a Short Period of Time

Over 50 immigration reform laws were passed during this relatively short window of 15 years. Some examples include:

Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 - Prohibited U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from petitioning for family members if they have been convicted of certain sexual offenses against minors. More details on the Adam Walsh Act can be found in our Marriage Green Card blog.

COMPLETE Act of 2006 - Expanded opportunities for athletes, both professional and amateur, to compete or perform in the United States.

Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 - All international adoptions to the U.S. are covered by the accreditation standards in the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, not just adoptions from Hague-signatory countries.

U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement - Made minor changes to trade provisions and retitled this agreement (formally called “NAFTA”), but made no changes to immigration provisions.


Only time will tell what changes will occur to U.S. immigration law next!

Back to blog