Anti-immigration laws are congressional acts that regulate the conditions under which residents of foreign countries may enter the U.S. to live permanently. Such laws usually contain provisions that have the effect of discouraging or prohibiting certain classes of persons from immigrating. Vested with almost total authority over immigration, Congress initially began stemming the tide of immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Between 1865 and 1890 a great wave of immigrants came to the U.S., mostly from northwest Europe (especially England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, and Scandinavia). In 1875 Congress passed the first restrictive immigration statute, barring criminals, anarchists, polygamists, and prostitutes from entry. Other anti-immigration laws passed in 1882 and 1892 barred admission to persons who were insane, had a loathsome or contagious disease, or were likely to become dependent on governmental assistance. Congress passed a series of Alien Contract Labor laws in 1885, 1887, 1888, and 1891, which precluded immigrants from entering the U.S. to work under contracts made before their arrival and prohibited U.S. employers from advertising job opportunities in other countries.
Between 1890 and 1914 a second wave of 15 million people immigrated to the U.S., mostly coming from eastern and southern Europe (Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Greece, Rumania, and Italy). By World War I (1914–1918) there was a growing belief that the country was becoming overcrowded. Many Americans complained that new immigrants were taking good jobs and depressing wages by working for little money. Congress responded by passing immigration laws in 1917, 1921, and 1924. The 1917 law created literacy, physical, and economic standards for aliens seeking admission, and barred immigration from many of the Asian and Pacific islands. The 1921 law established a quota system, under which the total number immigrants from any one nation in a given year could not exceed three percent of the number of foreign-born residents of that nationality living in the U.S. during 1910. The 1924 law lowered the cap to two percent. Immigration slowed dramatically during the Great Depression, as economic opportunities in the U.S. dwindled. In some years during this period the number of Americans emigrating from the U.S. actually exceeded the number of foreigners seeking admission. Immigration did not pick up again until after World War II (1939–1945), when Congress recognized two new categories of immigrants: wives and children of American citizens who had served abroad in the U.S. armed forces.
See also: Chinese Exclusion Act, Immigration