Immigration—Almost Four Hundred Years of American History

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There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came. It was a highly individual decision. Yet it can be said that three large forces—religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship—provided the chief motives for the mass migration to our shores. They were responding, in their own way, to the pledge of the Declaration of Independence: the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1964

This chapter covers the impact of immigration and related legislation from the founding of the first American colonies through the 1970s. Immigration from the 1980s to the present follows in Chapter 2. Information for these two chapters was drawn from a variety of resources, but in particular the U.S. Census Bureau; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration; the Department of State; the National Archives; and the Federation for American Immigration Reform.


America, from its very beginning, has been a land of immigrants. People have come from all nations seeking free choice of worship, escape from cruel governments, and relief from war, famine, or poverty. All came with dreams of a better life for themselves and their families. America has accommodated these people of diverse backgrounds, customs, and beliefs, although not without considerable friction along the way.

On the eastern shore of the peninsula that is now Florida, Spanish conquistadors established a settlement in 1565. The city of St. Augustine survived to become the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in North America. However, the series of northern colonies gained far more attention in history. In his book Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002), Dennis Wepman chronicles the immigrants who built America. Not long after English settlers established the first permanent colony on the James River in 1607, the French developed a settlement on the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada. Dutch explorers soon built a fur-trading post along the Hudson River. Swedes settled on the Delaware River. German Quakers and Mennonites joined William Penn's experimental Pennsylvania colony. Jews from Brazil, Protestant Huguenots from France, Puritans and Catholics from England all came to escape persecution for their religious beliefs and practices.

During the colonial period, many immigrants came as indentured servants, required to work for four to seven years to earn back the cost of their passage. To the great aggravation of the colonists, some were convicts who accepted being shipped across the ocean as an alternative to imprisonment or death. In his book, Wepman estimated that as many as fifty thousand British felons were sent to the colonies. The first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants but other Africans were soon brought in chains to be slaves.

The continual ebb and flow of immigrants provided settlers to develop communities along the Atlantic coast, pioneers to push the United States westward, builders for the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railways, pickers for cotton in the South and vegetables in the Southwest, laborers for American industrialization, and intellectuals in all fields. Together, these immigrants have built, in the opinion of many people, the most diverse and exciting nation in the world.

According to the 1790 census, the United States had a population of 3.2 million white persons and 757,206 slaves (Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1790 to 1990, For the United States, Regions, Division, and States, Washington, DC: Population Bureau, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2002). All were immigrants or descendants of earlier seventeenth- and eighteenth-century arrivals. The population was predominantly English seasoned with people of German, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French, and Spanish descent. Native Americans were not counted.


Immigration was the way of life in the country's first century. Nevertheless, negative attitudes began to appear among the already settled English population. In 1753 Benjamin Franklin warned about the Germans coming to Pennsylvania:

Those who came hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation, and as ignorance is often attended with great credulity, when knavery [dishonest dealing] would mislead it, and with suspicion, when honesty would set it right; and, few of the English understand the German language, and so cannot address them either from the press or pulpit, it is almost impossible to remove any prejudices they may entertain. Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it. (The Complete Works in Philosophy, Politics, and Morals, of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, vol. II [London: J. Johnson, and Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806])

Officially, with the major exception of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, the United States encouraged immigration. The Articles of Confederation (drafted in 1777) made citizens of each state citizens of every other state. The U.S. Constitution (written in 1787) made only one direct reference to immigration. Article I, Section 9, Clause I provided that the "immigration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the Year (1808), but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person." Article I also gave Congress power to establish "a uniform rule of naturalization [to grant U.S. citizenship]."

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Early federal legislation established basic criteria for naturalization—five years residence in the United States, good moral character, and loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. These requirements were based on state naturalization laws. In 1798, in anticipation of war with France, the Federalist-controlled Congress proposed four laws intended to weaken the pro-immigrant Republican party.

Favoring caution in immigration policy, President John Adams asked, "Why should we take the bread out of the mouths of our own children and give it to strangers?" (The Works of John Adams, vol. IX, Boston: Little, Brown, 1856). Leading the opposition, Thomas Jefferson argued against restrictive immigration legislation. "Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers on arrival in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?" (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 3, edited by Lipscomb and Bergh, Washington, DC, 1903–04).

Ultimately Congress passed the four laws, collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts:

  • The Naturalization Act lengthened the residence requirement for naturalization from five to fourteen years.
  • The Alien Act authorized the president to arrest and/or expel allegedly dangerous aliens.
  • The Alien Enemies Act allowed the imprisonment or deportation of aliens who were subjects of an enemy nation during wartime.
  • The Sedition Act authorized fines and imprisonment for acts of treason including "any false, scandalous and malicious writing."

The Sedition Act was used to arrest and silence a number of mostly Republican newspaper editors. The strong public outcry against the Alien and Sedition Acts was partly responsible for the election of the Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, as the next president. Jefferson pardoned the individuals convicted under the Sedition Act. The Naturalization Act was repealed by Congress and the other three laws were allowed to lapse (The Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, 2001).


In the early 1800s America's territory more than doubled in size with the addition of the 828,000 square miles of land, which came to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. Reports of rich farm land and virgin forests provided by explorers like Lewis and Clark drew struggling farmers and skilled craftsmen, merchants and miners, laborers, and wealthy investors to leave Europe for the land of opportunity. In 1820, the year when immigration records were first kept, only 8,385 immigrants entered the United States, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics. During the 1820s the number began to rise slowly, an increase that generally continued for more than a century, until the Great Depression in 1929.

A Wave of Irish and German Immigration

Europe suffered from a population explosion in the 1800s. As land in Europe became more and more scarce, tenant farmers were pushed off their farms into poverty. Some immigrated to America to start a new life. This situation was made worse in Ireland when a fungus that caused potato crops to rot struck in 1845. Many Irishmen were poor farmers who depended on potatoes for food. They suffered greatly from famine when their crops rotted, and epidemics of cholera and typhoid spread from village to village. The Irish Potato Famine forced people to choose between starving to death or leaving their country. In the ten-year period from 1831 to 1840, a little over 207,000 Irish people arrived in America. Driven by the potato famine, between 1841 and 1850 the number of Irish immigrants rose more than 375% to 780,719. The flow of immigrants from Ireland peaked at more than 900,000 in the 1851–1860 decade. (See Table 1.1.)

Region and country of last residence a18201821–301831–401841–501851–601861–701871–801881–90
  All countries8,385143,439599,1251,713,2512,598,2142,314,8242,812,1915,246,613
Soviet Union14752775514572,51239,284213,282
United Kingdome, h2,41025,07975,810267,044423,974606,896548,043807,357
Other Europe34079581,001682
Hong Kongkkkkkkkk
Philippines16pppppp p
Other Asia311115722431,910
Canada & Newfoundlandq, r2092,27713,62441,72359,309153,878383,640393,304
  Dominican Republictttttttt
  Other Caribbean1643,83412,30113,52810,6609,04613,95729,042
  Central America21054436844995157404
  El Salvadortttttttt
  Other Central America21054436844995157404
  South America115318563,5791,2241,3971,1282,304
  Other South America115318563,5791,2241,3971,1282,304
  Other Americavvvvvvvv
Not specifiedv30033,03069,90253,11529,01117,791790789

Also affected by a potato famine and failed political revolutions, increasing numbers of German immigrants paralleled that of the Irish. From 1851 to 1860 the number of German immigrants (951,667) exceeded the Irish (914,119) by 37,548. The influx of Germans continued to rise to a peak of more than 1.4 million arrivals from 1881 to 1890. (See Table 1.1.)

Immigration, Politics, and the Civil War

This new wave of immigration led to intense anti-Irish, anti-German, and anti-Catholic sentiments among Americans, many of whom had been in America for only a few generations. It also triggered the creation of secret nativist societies (groups professing to protect the interests of the native-born against immigrants). Out of

Region and country of last residence a1891–19001901–101911–201921–301931–401941–501951–601961–70
  All countries3,687,5648,795,3865,735,8114,107,209528,4311,035,0392,515,4793,321,677
Soviet Union505,290w1,597,306w921,201w61,7421,3705716712,465
United Kingdome, h271,538525,950341,408339,57031,572139,306202,824213,822
Other Europe28239,94531,40042,61911,9498,48616,35011,604
Hong Kongkkkkkk15,541k75,007
Other Asia3,62811,0595,97312,7397,4359,55121,57263,369
Canada & Newfoundlandq, r3,311179,226742,185924,515108,527171,718377,952413,310
  Dominican Republictttt1,150t5,6279,89793,292
  Other Caribbean33,066107,548123,42458,9984,59016,87420,935u58,980
  Central America5498,19217,15915,7695,86121,66544,751101,330
  El Salvadortttt673t5,1325,89514,992
  Other Central America5498,19217,15915,7695,18816,53338,85686,338
  South America1,07517,28041,89942,2157,80321,83191,628257,940
  Other South America1,07517,28041,89942,2154,89412,21844,25399,411
  Other Americavvv31v2529,27659,71119,644
Not specifiedv14,06333,523y1,14722841212,49193

these groups grew a new political party, the American Party (also called the "Know-Nothings"), who claimed to support the rights of Protestant, American-born, male voters. According to Dennis Wepman, the Know-Nothings managed to win seventy-five seats in Congress and six governorships in 1855 before the party dissolved (Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2002).

In contrast to the nativists, the 1864 Republican party platform, written in part by Abraham Lincoln, stated, "Resolved, That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources, and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, shall be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy" (Felix S. Cohen, in Immigration and National

Region and country of last residence a1971–801981–901991–20002000200120022003Total 184 years, 1820–2003
All countries4,493,3147,338,0629,095,417849,8071,064,3181,063,732705,82768,923,308
  Austria9,47818,34015,5009971,0042,6571,1631,849,270b, c
  Hungary6,5506,5459,3821,0271,3141,3591,0181,680,833b, c
Soviet Union38,96157,677462,87443,80755,09955,46433,5634,050,706w
United Kingdome, h137,374159,173151,86614,53220,25818,05711,2205,320,551
Other Europe9,2878,23457,6518,51711,76610,57310,321272,285
Hong Kong113,46798,215109,7797,19910,3077,9525,020435,288k
Other Asia244,783648,354735,35665,74678,14269,11651,2781,964,610
Canada & Newfoundlandq, r169,939156,938191,98721,47530,20327,29916,5554,561,296
  Dominican Republic148,135252,035335,25117,44121,25622,47426,157915,274t
  Other Caribbean134,216128,911125,34311,45411,99510,4907,757935,659
  Central America134,640468,088526,91562,70873,06366,52053,4351,539,561
  El Salvador34,436213,539215,79822,33231,05430,53927,915579,973t
  Other Central America100,204254,549311,11740,37642,00935,98125,520959,588
  South America295,741461,847539,65655,39268,27973,40054,1551,985,779
  Other South America138,420255,356307,92131,05838,79340,53729,4431,084,745
  Other America995458403434110,188
Region and country of last residence a1971–801981–901991–20002000200120022003Total 184 years, 1820–2003
Not specifiedv121,03242,41816,45318,10617,7619,410355,154
aData for years prior to 1906 relate to country whence alien came; data from 1906–79 and 1984–99 are for country of last permanent residence; and data for 1980–83 refer to country of birth. Because of changes in boundaries, changes in lists of countries, and lack of data for specified countries for various periods, data for certain countries, especially for the total period 1820–1999, are not comparable throughout. Data for specified countries are included with countries to which they belonged prior to World War I.
bData for Austria and Hungary not reported until 1861.
cData for Austria and Hungary not reported separately for all years during the period.
dNo data available for Czechoslovakia until 1920.
ePrior to 1926, data for Northern Ireland included in Ireland.
fData for Norway and Sweden not reported separately until 1871.
gNo data available for Romania until 1880.
hSince 1925, data for United Kingdom refer to England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
iIn 1920, a separate enumeration was made for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Since 1922, the Serb, Croat, and Slovene Kingdom recorded as Yugoslavia.
jBeginning in 1957, China includes Taiwan. As of January 1, 1979, the United States has recognized the People's Republic of China.
kData not reported separately until 1952.
lData not reported separately until 1925.
mData not reported separately until 1949.
nNo data available for Japan until 1861.
oData not reported separately until 1948.
pPrior to 1934, Philippines recorded as insular travel.
qPrior to 1920, Canada and Newfoundland recorded as British North America. From 1820–98, figures include all British North America possessions.
rLand arrivals not completely enumerated until 1908.
sNo data available for Mexico from 1886–94.
tData not reported separately until 1932.
uData for Jamaica not collected until 1953. In prior years, consolidated under British West Indies, which is included in "Other Caribbean."
vIncluded in countries "Not specified" until 1925.
wFrom 1899–1919, data for Poland included in Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Soviet Union.
xFrom 1938–45, data for Austria included in Germany.
yIncludes 32,897 persons returning in 1906 to their homes in the United States.
Note: From 1820–67, figures represent alien passengers arrived at seaports; from 1868–91 and 1895–97, immigrant aliens arrived; from 1892–94 and 1898–2003, immigrant aliens admitted for permanent residence. From 1892–1903, aliens entering by cabin class were not counted as immigrants. Land arrivals were not completely enumerated until 1908. For recent changes in geographic definitions for Hong Kong, and the former Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia, see Notice of Special Geographic Definitions. Data for Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia include independent republics.

Welfare, New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1940).

In 1862 Lincoln signed the Homestead Law, which offered 160 acres of free land to any adult citizen or prospective citizen who agreed to occupy and improve the land for five years. Wepman noted that between 1862 and 1904 more than 147 million acres of western land were claimed by adventurous citizens and eager new immigrants. Efforts to complete a transcontinental railroad provided work for predominantly Irish and Chinese laborers.

The Civil War itself (1861–1865) seemed to have little impact on immigration. Although the number of immigrants dropped from 153,640 in 1860 to just under 92,000 in both 1861 and 1862, there were more than 176,000 new arrivals in 1863 and the numbers continued to grow.

Post-Civil War Growth in Immigration

Post-Civil War America was characterized by the rapid growth of the Industrial Revolution, which fueled the need for workers in the nation's flourishing factories. The number of arriving immigrants continued to grow in the 1870s, dominated by people from Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway. (See Table 1.1.) Opposition to immigration continued among some factions of established citizens. Secret societies of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, formed throughout the South to oppose not only African-American suffrage but also the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and rapid naturalization of foreign immigrants.

Immigration Swelled and the Source of Immigrants
Shifted in the 1880s

The decade from 1881 to 1890 marked a new era in immigration. The volume of immigrants nearly doubled from 2,812,191 in the 1870s to 5,246,613 in the 1880s. German immigration peaked at nearly 1.5 million and immigration from Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, and Wales also reached their highest levels. A new wave of immigrants began to arrive from Russia (including a significant number of Jews fleeing massacres called pogroms), Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. (See Table 1.1.) The mass exodus from eastern Europe foretold events that would result in World War I. These newcomers were different: they came from countries with limited public education and no sense of social equality; they were often unskilled and illiterate; and they tended to form tight ethnic communities within the large cities where they clung to their own language and customs, which further limited their ability to assimilate into American culture.

A Developing Federal Role in Immigration

The increasing numbers of immigrants prompted a belief that there should be some type of administrative order to the ever-growing influx. In 1864 Congress created a Commission of Immigration under the U.S. Department of State. A one-man office was set up in New York City to oversee immigration.

The 1870s witnessed a national debate over the importation of contract labor and limiting of such immigration. In 1875, after considerable debate, Congress passed the Page Law (18 Stat. 477). This first major piece of restrictive immigration legislation prohibited alien convicts and prostitutes from entering the country.

With the creation of the Commission of Immigration, the federal government began to play a central role in immigration, which had previously been handled by the individual states. Court decisions beginning in 1849 strengthened the federal government's role and limited the states' role in regulating immigration. In 1875 the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York (92 U.S. 259) that the immigration laws of New York, California, and Louisiana were unconstitutional. This ended the states' right to regulate immigration and exclude undesirable aliens. From then on Congress and the federal government had complete responsibility for immigration.

In 1882 Congress passed the first general immigration law. The Immigration Act of August 3, 1882 (22 Stat. 214) established a centralized immigration administration under the Secretary of the Treasury. The law also allowed the exclusion of "undesirables" including paupers, criminals, and the insane. A head tax was added at fifty cents per arriving immigrant to defray the expenses of immigration regulation and caring for the immigrants after their arrival in the United States.

The Influx of Immigrants from Asia

Before the discovery of gold in California in 1848, very few Asians (little more than two hundred, including Asian Indians) came to the United States (2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Washington, DC: Office of Immigration Statistics, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2004). Between 1849 and 1852 large numbers of Asian immigrants began arriving in the United States. These early arrivals came mostly from southern China, spurred on by economic depression, famine, war, and flooding. Thousands of Chinese immigrants were recruited to build railroads and work in mines, construction, or manufacturing. Many became domestic servants. Former mining camp cooks who had saved a little money opened restaurants. Others invested small amounts in equipment to operate one-man laundries, performing a service few other people wanted to tackle. Between 1851 and 1880 about a quarter of a million immigrants arrived from China, while only a few thousand arrived from other Asian countries. (See Table 1.1.)

Some people became alarmed by this increase in Chinese immigration. Their fears were fueled by a combination of racism and fears among American-born workers that employers were bringing over foreign workers to replace them and keep unskilled wages low. The public began to call for restrictions on Chinese immigration.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58), which prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for ten years. Exceptions included teachers, diplomats, students, merchants, and tourists. The Chinese Exclusion Act marked the first time the United States barred immigration of a national group. The law also prohibited Chinese immigrants in the United States from becoming naturalized American citizens. Fewer than fifteen thousand Chinese arrived during the last decade of the nineteenth century. (See Table 1.1.)

Four other laws that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers followed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1892 Geary Act (27 Stat. 25) extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten more years. In cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court upheld the constitutionality of these two laws. The Immigration Act of 1904 (33 Stat. 428) made the Chinese exclusion laws permanent. Under the Immigration Act of 1917 (39 Stat. 874), the United States suspended the immigration of laborers from almost all Asian countries.

During World War II, the United States and China became allies against the Japanese in Asia. As a gesture of goodwill, on December 17, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to Establish Quotas, and for Other Purposes (57 Stat. 600-1). The new law lifted the ban on naturalization of Chinese nationals but established a quota or limit of 105 Chinese immigrants to be admitted per year.

The Beginning of Japanese Immigration

Until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese immigration was hardly noticeable, with the total flow at 335 between 1861 and 1880. Because Japanese immigrants were not covered by the Chinese Exclusion Act, however, Japanese laborers were brought in to replace Chinese workers. Consequently Japanese immigration increased from 2,270 in the 1880s to almost 130,000 during the first decade of the twentieth century (1901–1910). (See Table 1.1.) Japanese workers labored in the rapidly expanding sugarcane plantations in Hawaii and the fruit and vegetable farms of California.

The same anti-Asian attitudes that had led to the Chinese Exclusion Act culminated in President Theodore Roosevelt's "Gentleman's Agreement" of 1907, an informal arrangement between the U.S. and Japanese governments that cut the flow of Japanese immigration to a trickle. This anti-Asian attitude resurfaced a generation later in the National Origins Act (Immigration Act of 1924; 43 Statutes-at-Large 153). The immigration quota for any nationality group had been based on the number of persons of that nationality resident in the United States in the 1910 census. The new law reduced quotas from 3% to 2% and shifted the base for quota calculations from 1910 back to 1890. Since few Asians lived in the United States in 1890, the reduction in Asian immigration was particularly dramatic. Asian immigration was not permitted to increase until after World War II.

Greater Government Control

In "Overview of INS History" (, Marion L. Smith describes the development of the federal role in control of immigration. With the exception of Asian immigration, the federal government had done little to restrict immigration. In 1891 the federal government assumed total control over immigration issues. The Immigration Act of March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 1084), authorized the establishment of the U.S. Office of Immigration under the Treasury Department. This first comprehensive immigration law added to the list of inadmissible persons those suffering from certain contagious diseases, polygamists (married persons who had more than one mate at the same time), and aliens convicted of minor crimes. The law also prohibited using advertisements to encourage immigration.

On January 2, 1892, a new federal immigration station began operating on Ellis Island in New York. According to the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, during its years of operation (1892–1954) more than twelve million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island ( That figure represented about half of the 24,178,969 immigrants who entered the United States during that period. In 1895 the Office of Immigration became the Bureau of Immigration under the Commissioner-General of Immigration.

In 1903 the Bureau of Immigration was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor. The Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 596) consolidated the immigration and naturalization functions of the federal government under the new title Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. When the Department of Labor and Commerce was separated into two cabinet departments in 1913, two bureaus were formed—the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization. In 1933 the two bureaus were reunited as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Immigrants from Eastern Europe Continued to Come

By the 1890s the origins of those arriving in America had changed. Fewer immigrants came from northern Europe while immigrants from southern, central, and eastern European countries grew in numbers every year. Of the 8.1 million European immigrants who arrived between 1901 and 1910, 72% came from Italy, the Soviet Union, and Austria-Hungary. (See Table 1.1.) The 1923 report "The Immigration Problem in the United States" prepared by the National Industrial Conference Board noted that immigration from northern and western Europe was referred to as "old" immigration, whereas that from southern and eastern European countries was commonly called "new" immigration. The same report noted racial problems between "old" and "new" immigrants; the term "race" generally included nationalities or ethnic groups. The National Industrial Conference Board report displayed graphs of immigrant groups by race, including among others Hebrew, German, English, Irish, Scotch, Scandinavian, Slovak, and Armenian.

The exodus of Jews (called Hebrews in the National Industrial Conference Board report) from eastern Europe was particularly significant. The 1923 report stated that an average of greater than 57,000 Hebrew[s] per year arrived between 1908 and 1922. This was double the average arrivals of any other group. The American Immigration Law Foundation noted that many of these Jewish immigrants were merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and professionals, contrary to the stereotype of poor, uneducated immigrants coming out of eastern Europe.


A Million Immigrants a Year

Immigration and Naturalization Service annual records reported that the nation's already high immigration rate at the turn of the century doubled between 1902 and 1907. Immigration reached a million per year in

YearTotalSubversive or anarchistCriminal or narcotics violationsImmoralMental or physical defectLikely to become public chargeStowawayAttemped entry without inspection or without proper documentsContract laborerUnable to read (over 16 years of age)Other
Note: From 1941–53, statistics represent all exclusions at sea and air ports and exclusions of aliens seeking entry for 30 days or longer at land ports. After 1953, includes aliens excluded after formal hearings.
NA Not available.

1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1913, and 1914 but declined to less than 325,000 per year from 1915 through 1919 due to World War I. Many Americans worried about the growing influx of immigrants, whose customs were unfamiliar to the majority of the native population. Anti-Catholic, anti-political radicalism (usually expressed as anti-socialism), and racist movements became more prevalent along with a resurgence of nativism.

The Immigration Act of 1907 (34 Stat. 898) barred the immigration of feeble-minded persons, those with physical or mental defects that might prevent them from earning a living, and persons with tuberculosis. Increasing the head tax on each arriving immigrant to five dollars, the 1907 law also officially classified the arriving aliens as "immigrants" (persons planning to take up residence in the United States) and "nonimmigrants" (persons visiting for a short period of time to attend school, conduct business, or travel as tourists). All arrivals were required to declare their intentions for permanent or temporary stays in the United States. The law further authorized the president to refuse admission to persons he considered harmful to the labor conditions in the nation.

Reflecting national concerns about conflicts between old and new immigrant groups, Bureau of Immigration annual reports proposed that the immigrants should be more widely dispersed throughout the rest of the country, instead of being concentrated mostly in the northeastern urban areas. Not only would such a distribution of aliens help relieve the nation's urban problems, but the bureau thought it might promote greater racial and cultural assimilation.

The Immigration Act of 1917

The mounting negative feelings toward immigrants resulted in the Immigration Act of 1917 (39 Stat. 874), which was passed despite President Woodrow Wilson's veto. In addition to codifying (compiling into a complete system of written law) previous immigration legislation, the 1917 act required that immigrants be able to read and write in their native language and pass a literacy test, which proved to be a controversial clause. The new act also added the following groups to the inadmissible classes of immigrants: "illiterates, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, men and women entering for immoral reasons, chronic alcoholics, stowaways, vagrants, persons who had suffered a previous attack of insanity," and those coming from the designated Asiatic "barred zone," comprising mostly Asia and the Pacific Islands. This provision was a continuation of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the "Gentleman's Agreement" of 1907, in which the Japanese government had agreed to stop the flow of workers to the United States. In 1918 passports were required by presidential proclamation for all entries into the United States.

Denied Entry

Despite the restrictive immigration legislation, only a small percentage of those attempting to migrate to the United States were turned away. Between 1892 and 1990, 650,252 persons were denied entry for a variety of reasons. (See Table 1.2.) Aside from those attempting to enter without proper papers, the largest group excluded was 219,399 persons considered "likely to become public charges." The thirty-year period from 1901 to 1930 was the peak era for exclusion of immigrants deemed likely to become public charges, mentally or physically defective, or immoral. The 1917 ban on illiterate immigrants excluded 13,679 aliens over the next 50 years.


World War I temporarily stopped the influx of immigrants. In 1914, 1.2 million immigrants arrived; a year later the number dropped to barely 326,700. By 1918, the final year of the war, just over 110,000 immigrants ventured to America. However, the heavy flow started again after the war as people fled the war-ravaged European continent. More than 800,000 immigrants arrived in 1921.

The new wave of immigrants flocked to major cities where they hoped to find relatives or other immigrants from their native country as well as jobs. The 1920 census reported that for the first time in America's history the population living in cities exceeded that living in rural areas.

The First Quota Law

Concern over whether America could continue to absorb such huge numbers of immigrants led Congress to introduce a major change in American immigration policy. Other factors influencing Congress included racial fears about the "new" immigrants and apprehension over many of the immigrants' politically radical ideas.

The Quota Law of 1921 (42 Stat. 5) was the first quantitative immigration law. Congress limited the number of aliens of any nationality who could enter the United States to 3% of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality who lived in the United States in 1910 (based on the U.S. Census Report). By 1910, however, many southern and eastern Europeans had already entered the country, a fact many legislators had overlooked. Consequently, in order to restructure the makeup of the immigrant population, Congress approved the Immigration Act of 1924 (43 Stat. 153). This act set the first permanent limitation on immigration, or the "national origins quota system." The law immediately limited the number of persons of each nationality to 2% of the population of that nationality who lived in the United States in 1890.

The 1924 law provided that after July 1, 1927, an overall cap would allow a total of 150,000 immigrants per year. Quotas for each "national origin" group were to be developed based on the 1920 census. Exempted from the quota limitation were spouses or dependents of U.S. citizens, returning alien residents, or natives of Western Hemisphere countries not subject to quotas (natives of Mexico, Canada, or other independent countries of Central or South America). The 1924 law further required that all arriving nonimmigrants present visas obtained from a U.S. consulate abroad. Visas were government authorizations permitting entry into a country. The 1917 and 1924 acts remained the American immigration law until 1952.

The Impact of Quotas

The new laws also barred all Asian immigration, which soon led to a shortage of farm and sugar-plantation workers. Filipinos filled the gap; since the Philippines was an American territory, they did not come under the immigration quota laws. In addition, large numbers of immigrants arrived from the Caribbean, peaking during the 1911–1920 period, when more than 123,000 Caribbean immigrants entered the United States. (See Table 1.1.)

Prior to World War I Caribbean workers had moved among the islands and to parts of South and Central America. Following the war many went north in search of work. Similarly, after World War II (1939–1945), when agricultural changes in the Caribbean forced many people off the farms and into the cities, many continued on to the United States or the United Kingdom in search of jobs.

With the new quota laws, the problem of illegal aliens arose for the first time. Previously, only a few of the small number of immigrants who had failed the immigration standards tried to sneak in, usually across the U.S.–Mexico border. With the new laws, the number of illegal aliens began to increase. Subsequently, Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924 (under 43 Stat. 240) to oversee the nation's borders and prevent illegal aliens from coming into the United States. This in turn resulted in a system of appeals and deportation actions.


Changes at the Immigration and Naturalization Service

Immigration dropped well below 100,000 arrivals per year during the Great Depression of the 1930s, since America offered no escape from the unemployment that was rampant throughout most of the world. However, in the latter half of the 1930s Nazi persecution caused a new round of immigrants to flee Europe. In 1940 the INS was transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. This move reflected the growing fear of war, making surveillance of aliens a question of national security rather than a question of how many to admit. The job of the INS shifted from the exclusion of aliens to combating alien criminal and subversive elements. This required closer cooperation with the U.S. attorney general's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Alien Registration

World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Growing concern about an increase in refugees that might result from the war in Europe led Congress to pass the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (54 Stat. 670), also known as the Smith Act. Among other provisions, this act required all aliens to register and those over fourteen years old to be fingerprinted. All registration and fingerprinting took place at local post offices between August 27 and December 26, 1940. During that four-month period, five million aliens registered, nearly 4% of the total U.S. population of 132 million people. Each alien was identified by an alien registration number, known as an A-number. For the first time the government had a means of identifying an individual immigrant. (The A-number system is still in use today.) Following registration each alien received by mail an Alien Registration Receipt Card, which they were required to carry with them to prove they were registered. Each alien was required to report any change of address within five days. Managing such a vast number of registrants and documents in a short time created a monumental challenge for the INS. The ranks of employees in the Alien Registration Division of the INS swelled from 55 in August 1940 to a peak of 985 in July 1941 ("This Month in Immigration History: June 1940," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,

The United States officially entered World War II on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt immediately proclaimed all "nationals and subjects" of nations with which the country was at war to be enemy aliens. Various intelligence and military services quickly rounded up and detained some two thousand people. On January 14, 1942, the president issued a proclamation requiring further registration of aliens from enemy nations (primarily Germany, Italy, and Japan). All such aliens age fourteen and over were directed to apply for a Certification of Identification during the month of February 1942.

Alien registrations were used by a variety of government agencies and private industry to locate possible enemy subversives, such as aliens working for defense contractors, aliens with radio operator licenses, and aliens trained to pilot aircraft. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, one out of every twenty workers in American industry at that time was a noncitizen ("This Month in Immigration History: June 1940").

Japanese Internment

On the recommendation of military advisors, the president issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which authorized the forcible internment of people of Japanese ancestry. Lieutenant General J. L. DeWitt was placed in charge of removal of the Japanese to internment camps. In a June 5, 1943, letter to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, which accompanied his Final Report; Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942, DeWitt summed up the fears that drove the Japanese removal. "The continued presence of a large, unassimilated, tightly knit and racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom and religion along a frontier vulnerable to attack constituted a menace which had to be dealt with. Their loyalties were unknown and time was of the essence." DeWitt's report revealed that over a period of less than ninety days, 110,442 persons of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from the West Coast. More than two-thirds were U.S. citizens. Relocation began in April 1942 and the last camp was vacated in March 1946.

Executive Order 9066 was never formally terminated after the war ended. Over the years many Japanese-Americans expressed concern that it could be implemented again. On February 19, 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation officially terminating the provisions of Executive Order 9066 retroactive to December 31, 1946. President Ford said, "We now know what we should have known then—not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans. On the battlefield and at home, Japanese-Americans … have been and continue to be written in our history for the sacrifices and the contributions they have made to the well-being and security of this, our common Nation."


A growing fear of "communist infiltration" arose during the post-World War II period. One result was the passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950 (64 Stat. 987; PL 81-831), also known as the McCarran Act, which made membership in communist or totalitarian organizations cause for exclusion (denial of an alien's entry into the United States), deportation, or denial of naturalization. The law also required resident aliens to report their addresses annually and made reading, writing, and speaking English prerequisites for naturalization.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (66 Stat. 163; PL 82-414), also known as the McCarran–Walter Act after its sponsors, added preferences for relatives and skilled aliens, gave immigrants and aliens certain legal protections, made all races eligible for immigration and naturalization, and absorbed most of the Internal Security Act of 1950. The act changed the national origin quotas to only one-sixth of 1% of the number of people in the United States in 1920 whose ancestry or national origin was attributable to a specific area of the world. It also excluded aliens on ideological grounds, homosexuality, health restrictions, criminal records, narcotics addiction, and involvement in terrorism.

Once again, Western Hemisphere countries were not included in the quota system. President Harry Truman vetoed the legislation, declaring:

Today we are "protecting" ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic. The countries of Eastern Europe have fallen under the Communist yoke—they are silenced, fenced off by barbed wire and minefields—no one passes their borders but at the risk of his life. We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries—on the contrary, we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again. These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitation of our 1924 law. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States [Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961])

Congress overrode Truman's veto. Although there were major amendments, the Immigration and Nationality Act remained the basic statute governing who could gain entry into the United States until the passage of new laws following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

During the 1950s a half-dozen special laws allowed the entrance of additional refugees. Many of the laws resulted from World War II, but some stemmed from new developments. An example was the law affecting refugees fleeing the failed 1955 Hungarian revolution.


In 1963 President John F. Kennedy submitted a plan to change the quota system. Two years later Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (PL 89-236). Since 1924 sources of immigration had changed. In the 1950s immigration from Asia more than quadrupled from 37,028 (between 1941 and 1950) to 153,249 (between 1951 and 1960). In the same period immigration from North, Central, and South America increased dramatically. (See Table 1.1.)

The 1965 legislation cancelled the national origins quota system and made visas available on a first-come, first-serve basis. A seven-category preference system was implemented for families of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens for the purpose of family reunification. In addition, the law set visa allocations for persons with special occupational skills, abilities, or training needed in the United States. It also established an annual ceiling of 170,000 Eastern Hemisphere immigrants with a 20,000 per-country limit, and an annual limit of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere without a per-country limit or preference system.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976 (PL 94-571) extended the 20,000 per-country limit to Western Hemisphere countries. Some legislators were concerned that the 20,000-person limit for Mexico was inadequate, but their objections were overruled. The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1978 (PL 95-412) combined the separate ceilings for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres into a single worldwide ceiling of 290,000.


Official American refugee programs began in response to the devastation of World War II, which created millions of refugees and displaced persons (DPs). (A displaced person was a person living in a foreign country as a result of having been driven from his or her home country due to war or political unrest.) This was the first time the United States formulated policy to admit persons fleeing persecution. The Presidential Directive of December 22, 1945, gave priority in issuing visas to about 40,000 DPs. The directive was followed by the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (PL 80-744), which authorized admission of 202,000 persons from Eastern Europe, and the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 (PL 83-203), which approved entry of another 209,000 defectors from Communist countries over a three-year period (A History of U.S. Refugee Policy, Washington, DC: USA for UNHCR, 1992). The Displaced Persons Act counted the refugees in the existing immigration quotas, while the Refugee Relief Act admitted them outside the quota system.

Parole Authority—A Temporary Admission Policy

In 1956 the U.S. attorney general used the parole authority (temporary admission) under Section 212(d) (15) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 for the first time on a large scale. This section authorized the attorney general to temporarily admit any alien to the United States. While parole was not admission for permanent residence, it could lead to permanent resident or immigrant status. Aliens already in the United States on a temporary basis could apply for asylum (to stay in the United States) on the grounds they were likely to suffer persecution if returned to their native lands. The attorney general was authorized to withhold deportation on the same grounds.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, this parole authority was used to admit approximately 32,000 of the 38,000 Hungarians who fled the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956 (An Immigrant Nation: United States Regulation of Immigration, 1798–1991, June 18, 1991). The other 6,000 entered under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 and were automatically admitted as permanent residents. This parole provision was also used in 1962 to admit 15,000 refugees from Hong Kong to the United States.

Refugees as Conditional Entrants

In 1965, under the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, Congress added Section 203(a) (7) to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, creating a group of "conditional entrant" refugees from communist or Middle Eastern countries, with status similar to the refugee parolees. Sections 203(a) (7) and 212(d) (15) were used to admit thousands of refugees, including Czechoslovakians escaping their failed revolution in 1968, Ugandans fleeing their dictatorship in the 1970s, and Lebanese avoiding the civil war in their country in the 1980s.

Not until the Refugee Act of 1980 did the United States have a general policy governing the admission of refugees. The Refugee Act of 1980 (PL 96-212) eliminated refugees as a category in the preference system and set a worldwide ceiling on immigration of 270,000, not counting refugees. It also removed the requirement that refugees had to originate from a Communist or Middle Eastern nation.

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Immigration—Almost Four Hundred Years of American History

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