The United States has been a nation of immigrants ever since the first European settlers arrived in the 1600s and began forming the colonies.
For the first 200 years or so, immigrants were mostly welcomed.
However, during the past 150 years, anti-immigrant sentiments have emerged as people who already live here have fostered resentment toward those trying to enter.
The focus has shifted over the decades from Irish to Chinese to Hispanic immigrants, among others. As those shifts have occurred, laws have been enacted in response.
Here’s a look at some of our immigration history.
In 1790, the Naturalization Act took effect. The requirements to become “naturalized” were two years of residence in the country and “good moral character.” Oh, you also had to be a “free white person.” In 1795, the residency requirement was extended to five years. In 1798, it was increased to 14 years and then back to five years in 1802. You still had to be white.
Between 1790 and 1820, only about 100,000 immigrants came to the United States per decade. Most were from the United Kingdom and western Europe. That jumped to 500,000 immigrants in the 1830s, mainly from Germany and Ireland. In the 1840s, 1.5 million foreign-born residents arrived. That increased in the 1850s to nearly 3 million, 94 percent of whom were from Europe.
Many immigrants were drawn to the United States by the prospects of jobs in the railroad industry, factories and gold mining. Others were escaping problems in their home country, including Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s. The economy in the United States was strong, so many people here welcomed immigrants. However, others such as the Know-Nothings political party accused foreign-born residents of stealing jobs from the rest of the populace.
In 1850, census officials began tracking immigration. They estimated there were 2.2 million foreign-born people in the United States (almost 10 percent of the country then). Immigration laws didn’t have many restrictions, but they still allowed only white people to become citizens.
In 1870, new laws allowed people of African descent to become citizens. However, other non-white people still were excluded. The main target of this restriction were Asian immigrants.
After the Civil War, states began enacting their own immigration laws. So, in 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had responsibility for immigration policy.
In the 1880s, steam-powered ships replaced sailing ships, making immigration easier. Immigrants arrived from not only Europe but also the Middle East and other places.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was approved to restrict the arrival of Chinese laborers, who had come to the United States during the construction of the railroads. The law instituted a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. It was the first time a federal law had restricted members of an ethnic working group on the grounds they endangered local entities. The exclusion act was renewed in 1892 and then made permanent in 1902 before being repealed in 1943.
In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law was approved. This act prohibited employers from recruiting foreign workers with promises of a job. The law was targeted at Chinese immigrants who worked for cheaper wages on both the East Coast and the West Coast. Immigrants could still come to the United States and look for work on their own.
In 1898, the court case United States vs. Wong Kim Ark established that descendants of legal immigrants are U.S. citizens. The ruling overturned limits included in the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The Immigration Act of 1903 denied entry to anarchists, prostitutes and those associated with prostitution. The law was in response to the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by a man who described himself as an anarchist.
In 1906, the Naturalization Act created the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. It also set uniform standards for foreign-born residents to achieve citizenship. It required applicants to have learned English in order to be naturalized.
The Immigration Act of 1917 created a “barred zone” from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. People from those countries were prohibited from entering the United States. The act also required a literacy test intended to reduce European immigration. The law was prompted by fears of radical immigrants during World War One and the Russian Revolution.
In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act established the first immigration quotas. It limited the number of immigrants from any one country to 3 percent of the foreign-born residents of that country who were living in the United States. The provision allowed about 350,000 immigrants per year, mostly from western and northern Europe.
The Immigration Act of 1924 doubled down on the 1921 quota law. This act set the per-country quotas at 2 percent, in effect limiting annual immigration to 150,000 a year.
As the Great Depression unfolded in 1930, about 1.8 million people of Mexican heritage were deported under a “repatriation” program. The impetus for the programs by local and state officials was the feeling that people of Mexican heritage were working at jobs that should have gone to white unemployed Americans. Some historians estimate that up to 60 percent of the people deported were actually U.S. citizens, many born in this country. Border states such as California and Texas deported workers but so did inland states such as Michigan, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio.
The Nationality Act of 1952 reinforced the quotas from the 1924 immigration laws. The act also eliminated the restrictions on Asian immigration and allowed preference for immigrants who had job skills or family in the United States. The act continued the country’s favoritism of western and northern European immigrants over Asian immigrants.
In 1955, the United States and Mexico cooperated to deport Mexican immigrants living in the United States to help ease a labor shortage in Mexico. The immigrants, some of whom were U.S. citizens, were rounded up in military fashion by armed Border Patrol agents. Estimates on the number of people deported range from 300,000 to 1.3 million. The official name of the program was Operation Wetback.
In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act finally undid the 1924 immigration laws by eliminating the previous quota system based on national origin and replacing it with a system that prioritized family reunification and employment skills. The reunification portion of the new law led to “chain migration” where an immigrant could legally bring in their family from their native country. The result was a shift from European to Asian immigration. Historians say the act led to a quadrupling of the number of immigrants living in the United States.
In 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed any Cuban nationals who had fled the island nation and had lived in the United States for at least two years to obtain green cards and become lawful permanent residents. The law was amended in 1995 to exclude people found in international waters, the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy. The law was at the center of the 1999 case surrounding 5-year-old Elian Gonzales. The Cuban refugee program was curtailed in 2017 in President Barack Obama’s last days in the White House under an agreement with the Cuban government.
The Refugee Act of 1980 increased the limit of refugees who could be admitted to the United States from 17,400 to 50,000 per year. The impetus was the number of people from Southeast Asia who were seeking asylum after the end of the Vietnam War. The law also changed the definition of a refugee to a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act instituted punishments for businesses that knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants. It also made it illegal for a person to use fraudulent entry or work documents. The law also established visa programs for agricultural as well as nonagricultural employees.
The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the annual limits on immigration to 700,000 initially and then to 675,000. In addition, it established specific criteria for family-based and employment-based immigration. The law also created a diversity program to increase immigration from countries that had fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years. A program to award work visas through a lottery system was also put into place. The H-1B skilled worker visa program was part of these new programs.
In 1994, the first three sections of the border wall between Mexico and California, Arizona and Texas were built to curtail drug trafficking. They remain part of the 650 miles of wall now along the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States.
In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act increased border enforcement and instituted civil penalties for people illegally crossing the border. The law was prompted by the 1983 World Trade Center bombing in New York, the 1984 anti-immigration initiative approved by California voters and the 1985 Oklahoma City bombing.
In 2002, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, immigration enforcement was increased after the Department of Homeland Security Act was signed into law.
In 2005, the REAL ID Act set standards for identifications that can be used to enter federal facilities as well as board airplanes. It also placed new requirements on people seeking political asylum.
In 2008, the Secure Communities program began in an attempt to increase the cooperation between local and state officials with federal agents on illegal immigration. The fingerprint database is one of the tools used by agents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to locate people who have entered the United States illegally. The program was ended in 2014 by the Obama administration. It was reactivated in 2017 by the Trump administration. The Biden administration has rolled back some of the immigration policies of the Trump administration but, so far, not the Security Communities program.
In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was created, opening up a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States before their 16th birthday. The applicants have to meet numerous criteria. In 2017, the Trump administration began phasing out the program. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration had not provided an adequate justification for ending the DACA program. The ruling allowed DACA participants to renew their membership in the program, which provides them with work authorization and temporary protection against deportation. The Biden administration has taken steps to preserve the DACA program.
The number of immigrants has fluctuated over the years. So have the countries where they come from.
In 1850, the 2.2 million foreign-born residents made up slightly less than 10 percent of the U.S. population.
By 1900, foreign-born residents had risen to 10 million people and more than 13 percent of the population. Most were from Europe, in particular Germany, Italy and Ireland.
The percentage steadily declined after the immigration laws of the 1920s were instituted.
By 1940, the number was under 10 percent again. In 1970, it hit a low of 4 percent.
The number of immigrants also decreased. There were 14 million foreign-born residents in 1940 compared to 9 million in 1970.
The numbers began to rise sharply after 1970 due in large part to the relaxation of immigration laws in the 1960s.
In 2010, there were 40 million foreign-born residents in the United States, making up nearly 13 percent of the population.
It’s estimated there are now more than 50 million immigrants living in the United States. That’s about 15 percent of the U.S. population, the highest percentage since 1910. The demographics have shifted from mostly European immigrants a century ago to Latin American and Asian immigrants today.
And while the 46 million immigrants is the highest in total numbers in the world, our 15 percent is not. Countries such as Canada (21 percent) and Australia (30 percent) are higher.
There are those who argue that illegal immigration as well as an influx of foreign-born residents can drive down wages and drive up unemployment. Their arguments are not without merit.
On the other hand, there are those who argue immigration has more positive effects than negative ones.
A column in Time magazine in May 2019 detailed what proponents say are the benefits immigrants bring to our society.
For starters, while immigrants are 15 percent of the U.S. population, they start 25 percent of new businesses.
One in four high-tech companies from 1995 to 2005 had an immigrant founder, chief executive officer, chief technology officer or president. About 70 percent of workers in the high-tech industry are immigrants.
In 2008, Bill Gates estimated that for every immigrant tech worker who arrives, five other U.S. jobs are created.
Immigrants also tend to be younger, so they offset the graying American population. The Social Security Administration estimates that immigrants pay $13 billion in payroll taxes but only receive $1 billion in benefits.
Proponents also say that Immigrants reduce the burden on Social Security because they work longer and don’t receive as much, if any, of the retirement benefits.
Suffice to say the debate over immigration continues after more than 150 years.