Immigration History


America has a unique immigration history. The first Americans migrated from Asia over 10,000 years ago. Later, Europeans settled along the East Coast of what is now the United States. Beginning in the early 17th century, they brought slaves from Africa.

U.S. Immigration History Prior to the 20th Century

The United States encouraged relatively free and open immigration, mostly from Europe, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and rarely questioned that policy until the late 1800s.

After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1875 declared regulation of immigration a federal responsibility. Thus, as the number of immigrants rose in the 1880s and economic conditions in some areas worsened, Congress began to pass immigration legislation.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first and only major federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality. The basic exclusion law prohibited Chinese laborers — defined as “both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” — from entering the country. Subsequent amendments to the law prevented Chinese laborers who had left the United States from returning.


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The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act represented the outcome of years of racial hostility and anti-immigrant agitation by white Americans, set the precedent for later restrictions against immigration of other nationalities, and started a new era in which the United States changed from a country that welcomed almost all immigrants to a gatekeeping one.

The federal government assumed direct control of inspecting, admitting, rejecting, and processing all immigrants seeking admission to the U.S. with the Immigration Act of 1891. The Act expanded the list of excludable classes, barring the immigration of polygamists, persons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, and those suffering loathsome or contagious diseases.

Immigration History in the 20th Century

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The law abolished the National Origins Formula, which had been the basis of U.S. immigration policy since the 1920s. The act removed de facto discrimination against Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, as well as other non-Northwestern European ethnic groups from American immigration policy.

The act created a preference system that gives priority to relatives and children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, professionals and other individuals with specialized skills, and refugees. The act contains per-country and total immigration limits, but included a provision exempting immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from numerical restrictions.

The act also set a numerical limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time in U.S. history. Though proponents of the bill had argued that it would not have a significant effect on the total level of immigration or the demographic mix of the U.S, the act greatly increased the total number of immigrants as well as the share of immigrants from Asia and Africa.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) made it illegal to hire illegal immigrants knowingly and establishing financial and other penalties for companies that employed illegal immigrants. The act also legalized most undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the country prior to January 1, 1982.

Today, one million immigrants each year arrive in the United States from countries all around the world.

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