A brief history of US immigration policy and laws

by Fred Elbel

As a young nation, the vast open spaces of the United States were populated during its expansive years by American settlers, some of whom were immigrants. Immigration policy developed over time as our population grew and our nation became settled. Essentially unrestricted immigration was manifested by the Great Wave beginning in 1880 and lasting for 35 years. As our country became more populated, our immigration policies changed to reflect the changing needs of our nation. Unfortunately, these changes in immigration policies diverged from those that were in the best national interest, beginning in 1965. 

A brief history of U.S. immigration law

Prior to 1790, immigration policy was controlled by the individual states. In 1790 immigration policy was brought under U.S. Government control with a two-year residency requirement.

In 1819, Congress enacted America's first significant immigration legislation, strengthening U.S. control over immigration policy. This control was further centralized in 1864. In 1875, prostitutes and convicts were prevented from entering our country.

Chinese immigration was curbed in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. It also prevented entry of persons likely to become public charges, as well as those who had committed public offenses. In 1885, contract laborers were banned from entry. Then in 1888, provisions were adopted addressing expulsion of aliens from our country.

In 1891 the Bureau of Immigration was established. It administered all immigration laws except the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Great Wave of immigration began in 1890 and lasted for thirty-five years. During that period, 20 million immigrants were admitted into the United States. The book Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924 discusses the history and practical realities of admitting so many immigrants en masse.

In 1903, political radicals and polygamists were excluded from entry. In 1906, an understanding of English was required to immigrate into the United States. In 1917 psychopathic persons, illiterates, alcoholics, stowaways, vagrants, and those entering for immoral purposes were excluded from entry. 1921 marked the first immigration law quantifying the number of immigrants taken in to our country.

The Border Patrol was established in 1924, as was the first permanent immigration quota law. This law established a consular control system, a preference quota system, and nonquota status. These quotas were made permanent in 1929.

The Bracero Program was implemented in 1943, which imported agricultural workers. The Chinese Exclusion laws were repealed.

In 1948 laws were enacted to admit those fleeing persecution. The quota was established at 205,000 and later expanded in 1953 to 415,000 every two years.

In 1950 the Internal Security Act was passed to deal with subversives. Aliens had to report their address annually.

In 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 was enacted, which reaffirmed the national origins quota system and tightened screening procedures. It also restricted immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere, and established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens. It embodied a major revision of immigration law, but retained the essence of the 1917 and 1924 Acts and continued to exclude Communists.

Immigration Reform and Nationality Act of 1965

The Immigration Reform and Nationality Act of 1965 marked a turning point in American immigration policy. It eliminated traditional immigration emphasis on Europeans and shifted preference from applicants who qualified with special skills to family members of those already here. It retained the principle of numerical restriction with an annual limit of 170,000 Hemispheric and 20,000 per country, as well as a seven-category preference system. A 120,000 annual limit was established for the Western Hemisphere. Regarding the Eastern Hemisphere, it favored close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens, refugees, and those with occupational skills.

With elimination of quotas, the 1965 Act represented the most significant change in immigration policy since the 1920s. By favoring family reunification, it paved the way for subsequent immigration amnesties which would alter American demographics and lead to a permanently multicultural America. Senator Jacob Javits said upon its passage, "Let the floodgates be opened."

The 1965 Immigration Reform Act promoted by President Kennedy, drafted by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and pushed through the Senate by Ted Kennedy has resulted in a wave of immigration from the Third World that should shift the nation in a more liberal direction within a generation. It will go down as the Kennedy family’s greatest gift to the Democratic Party.
Democratic consultant Patrick Reddy, 1998

In 1976 limits were adjusted, but Hemispheric limits were retained until 1978, when they were combined into a one-world limit of 290,000.

1980 Refugee Act

The Refugee Act of 1980 removed refugees as a preference category.

1986 IRCA

The comprehensive Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 legalized aliens who had resided unlawfully in the United States since January 1, 1982 - in other words, it granted a massive amnesty. It prohibited employers from hiring and recruiting aliens unauthorized to work in the U.S. It created a temporary agricultural worker and legalized some of them, and established a visa waiver pilot program which provided entry to certain non-immigrants without visas. Separate legislation addressed immigrants based on marriage.

The amnesty of 1986 was clearly stated by Congress to be a "one time only" amnesty. Yet including the 1986 amnesty, Congress has passed a total of 7 amnesties for illegal aliens.

Comprehensive immigration legislation passed in 1990 increased total immigration with a limit of 700,000 from 1992 through 1994, then a flexible limit of 675,000 immigrants in 1995. It also created separate categories for employment-based, family-sponsored, and diversity immigrants.

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (Barbara Jordan Commission) recommended a dramatic scaling back of family chain migration to Congress in 1997. It recommended focusing on skilled immigrants - that is, individuals who would directly benefit our society. The report was ignored, primarily for political reasons.

The turning point - 1965 INA

The Immigration Reform and Nationality Act of 1965 represents the most significant turning point when immigration policy no longer represented the interests of America and Americans.

By focusing on family reunification, the 1965 act paved the way for fundamentally changing American demographics, and for numerous amnesties for illegal aliens living in America.

The late Lawrence Auster noted of Congress that “they did not want or expect their bill to result in a huge increase in immigration or in a fundamental change in the growth rate and ethnic make-up of the U.S. population. But that is exactly what happened.” Auster concludes that “the 1965 Act was passed through a combination of thoughtlessness and deceit.”

Historian Otis Graham, Jr., noted that the 1924 Immigration Act created “a forty-year breathing space of relatively low immigration, with effects favorable to assimilation.” Yet "The 1965 law, and subsequent policy changes consistent with its expansionist goals, shifted the nation from a population-stabilization to a population-growth path, with far-reaching and worrisome consequences.” (Sources: The Social Contract Editor's Note, below).

Americans are now living in a time when they have a limited window of opportunity to change relatively recent unsound immigration policies imposed by our feckless government.

More information on U.S. immigration laws and policies

The hidden history of immigration into America (it ruins the narrative), Fabius Maximus, October 29, 2018.

Amnesty for illegal aliens, legalization and comprehensive immigration reform, CAIRCO.

Deportation immigration law enforcement,CAIRCO.

A History of U.S. Immigration Laws, FAIR. This is a comprehensive history with perspective on various immigration eras.

Comparisons of 20th Century Growth by Decade, NumbersUSA.

Our Immigration Traditions, NumbersUSA.

Change the Numbers, a two minute video by NumbersUSA.

Immigration by the Numbers - Off the Charts, video by NumbersUSA.

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (Barbara Jordan Commission), NumbersUSA.

Articles on the 1965 Immigration Reform and Nationality Act, Center for Immigration Studies.

Articles on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Center for Immigration Studies.

The Fall 2015 Social Contract Journal focuses on the disastrous consequences of the 1965 Immigration Act. The issue is titled "The Unmaking of America? The 1965 Immigration Act after 50 years". Here are direct links to the articles:

  1. Editor's Note: The 1965 Immigration Act - Intent and Consequences 50 Years On
  2. The 1965 Immigration Act - Its Intent, Its Consequences
  3. America's Demographic Tipping Point
  4. Reflecting on the Immigration Act of 1965 - 50th anniversary of the landmark transformation of the United States
  5. A Vast Social Experiment - The Immigration Act of 1965
  6. LBJ on Immigration - Remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the Immigration Bill, Liberty Island, New York, October 3, 1965
  7. So Much for Promises... Selected quotes from congressional sponsors of the 1965 Immigration Act
  8. The Economic Impact of the 1965 Immigration Act
  9. Let's Consider a Half-Century of Lies - The 1965 Immigration Act in perspective
  10. Rising Public Support Emboldens Immigration-Control Candidates
  11. 'Maritime Ping Pong' in the Bay of Bengal
  12. 'Alien' Too Accurate? Maybe the entire California legal code will be soon re-written in Emojis
  13. Straight Talk on Immigration
  14. Dangerous Times - Federal immigration policy and resettling the Hijra to America
  15. Immigration Wars - Jeb Bush, Clint Bolick, and the Elitist Libertarian Opposition to Sane Immigration Policy

The Law that Changed the Face of America: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, book by Margaret Sands Orchowski.

A Dismal Anniversary - 50 Years Of The Immigration Act Of 1965

The Ideology of Unrestricted Immigration, Chilton Williamson, Jr., Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Summer 2016. See summary of the article: Unrestricted immigration - a radical ideology, by Fred Elbel, CAIRCO, December 5, 2016.