Tag Archives: Immigration

History of US Immigration

A History of Border Security, Illegal and legal immigration


Regulating the flow of immigrants into the United States has a long, and often tawdry past.

Once regulated, entry then becomes “legal” or “illegal”. And “legal” entry is now generally highly restricted, on a temporary or permanent basis to three different routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. All other entry: “illegal”.

Once regulated, borders then become “secure” or “insecure”. Because of trade, borders needed to be highly efficient for goods, and highly “secure” for people. This distinction, between the flow of goods and the flow of people, was an almost unenforceable dilemma, where billions have been expended to do …. the best we can.

Who should regulate? The Supreme Court settled that issue in 1875, opining that this was the role of the Federal Government. Up until then, it was a state responsibility.

How should it regulate? Congress decided that racial quotas were the answer in 1917. Before that time, they actually banned Asian immigration in 1875. The essential idea was to restrict immigration by race to a % of the race’s population in the US (2% of that population was frequently used, noting that 2% of nothing is nothing). The notion of racial quotas was maintained until 1965!

Would there be any exceptions to racial quotas?

Yes, for refugees and asylum-seekers. Congress responded to American sympathies for those fleeing communism and those feeing persecution. Recognizing “refugees” added significant new complexity.

Yes, for spouses and children of American citizens.

Yes, for those born in the Western Hemisphere.

Once regulated, politicians could rail against immigrants, but they rarely provided the funds to enforce the border laws. We severely curtailed legal immigration, and illegal immigration was the easily anticipated result. In 1952, Congress specified that legal immigration be limited to 175,455 per year!

Also easily anticipated, “illegals” brought massive issues for schools, health care, housing, etc. As the number of “illegals” grew, so grew the pressure to do something, anything, to reduce the pressure. Congress has been forced to act, as they did in 1986 when they granted amnesty to approximately 3 million illegals!

So the history of immigration in the United States includes major shifts in policy in 1875 (Supreme Court rules), 1891 (Federal bureaucracy formed), 1924 (racial quotas put in place), 1986 (racial quotas replaced and amnesty granted).

“Illegals” are out of control. Estimates of illegals are 3 million illegals in 1986, 7 million in 2001, and 12 million in 2017. As a % of U.S. population, “foreign-born” dropped from 14.7% in 1910 to 4.7% in 1970, and has been rising ever since. In 2013, there were 13.1% of the population who were foreign born (CREDIT:PEW).

Immigration became a full-fledged subject for the nation in 1875, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was a Federal responsibility. Shortly thereafter, Congress stepped up and began excluding people – literally making it “illegal” for them to enter the United States. They banned Asians in 1875 and Chinese in 1882 (the “Asian Exclusion Act” and the “Chinese Exclusion Act” set the stage for all restrictions on immigration that would follow.

In 1891, the Federal Government took a big step: they created a bureaucracy to execute the laws. The Immigration Act of 1891 established a Commissioner of Immigration in the Treasury Department. With the two exceptions noted above, states regulated immigration before 1890.

Before then, this “nation of immigrants” actually had an immigration hiatus from 1790 to 1815, when “foreign-born” reached a low. Immigration as we now know it began with some force in 1830, when “foreign-born reached 9.7% of the population. By 1850, census estimates place immigrants at 1.7 million people, and “foreign-born” at 2.2 million. Between 1870 and 1910, foreign born hovered between 13% and 15% of population. It then started to dip, moving to 4.7% in 1970. It has been climbing since, reaching 13.1% in 2013.

Since then, waves of immigration brought the country waves of immigrants:

Between 1850 and 1930, 25 million Europeans immigrated. Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others speaking Slavic languages made up the bulk of this migration. But among them were 5 million Germans, 3.5 million British, and 4.5 million Irish. 2.5 to 4 million Jews were among them.

The twentieth century began with debates about immigration, and we have been debating the subject ever since.

In 1907, Congress created The Dillingham Commission to investigate the effects of immigration on the country. They wrote forty volumes on the subject.

In 1917, Congress changed the nation’s basic policy about immigration. We began setting “quotas” and limiting access based on literacy. The first such law was a literacy requirement in 1917.

In 1921, Congress adopted the Emergency Quota Act, set quotas. The National Origins Formula assigned quotas based on national origins. This complex legislation gave preference to immigrants from Central, Northern and Western Europe, severely limiting the numbers from Russia and Southern Europe, and declared all potential immigrants from Asia unworthy of entry into the United States (to our shame, this law made it virtually impossible for Jews fleeing Germany after 1934 to immigrate to the United States).

In 1924 , Congress adopted The Immigration Act of 1924. It set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.

Interestingly, no quotas were set for people born in the Western Hemisphere.

This era, and its legislative framework, lasted until 1965. During this period, Congress recognized the notion of a “refugee” seeking “amnesty”. Jewish Holocaust survivors after the war, those fleeing Communist rule in Central Europe and Russia, Hungarians seeking refuge after their failed uprising in 1956, and Cubans after the 1960 revolution, and others moved the conscience of the nation.

In 1965, Congress adopted the Hart-Celler Act. It was a by-product of the civil rights revolution and a jewel in the crown of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. It abolished the racially based quota system.The law replaced these quotas with new preferential categories. It gave particular preference to immigrants with U.S. relatives and job skills deemed critical.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was adopted. It created, for the first time, penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants. IRCA, also granted amnesty to workers in the country illegally. In practice, amnesty was granted for about 3,000,000 illegal immigrants. Most were from Mexico. Legal Mexican immigrant family numbers were 2,198,000 in 1980, 4,289,000 in 1990 (includes IRCA), and 7,841,000 in 2000.





How U.S. immigration laws and rules have changed through history