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  • Writer's pictureLocal Labs Team

History of U.S. Immigration Policy

From the time the United States declared itself a country and through the Civil War, immigration was largely unregulated.¹ The only laws in place affected naturalization, which at first belonged only to those deemed white and grew from a period of 2 years (1790) to 5 years (1795) to 14 (1798 and repealed in 1802).² In 1870, the Naturalization Act was expanded to black Americans of slave descent as well.² Thus, American citizenship belonged to Blacks and whites alone.

Our timeline for immigration policy begins after this. While comprehensive, it does not contain every naturalization and immigration act or touch on every country of origin and aspect of citizenship. Rather, we tried to include the most significant acts in order to provide an educational overview on the topic. We have paraphrased the points and include citations at the end for further reference.


1875 — The Supreme Court declared immigration regulation to be a federal responsibility.²

1882 — The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.²

1880s — Other discriminatory laws were also passed around this time period based on the whims of the government, charging per immigrant and requiring enforcers to be put in place. The treasury and immigration departments became intertwined at this point.²

1892 — The Chinese Exclusion Act was extended by another ten years through the Geary Act.⁵

1892 — The Immigration Service opened the U.S.’s best known immigration station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor.⁷

1893 — The Board of Special Inquiry was created. Exclusion was focused on a lack of financial resources and absence of social ties.⁷

1898 — Through the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, it was declared that people of Chinese descent, born in the U.S. to permanent residents who didn’t work for China, were American.⁵

1906 — Naturalization shifted from decentralized court systems to a federal Basic Naturalization Act. In addition to having forms, these agencies began centralizing immigration files.⁸ Some English was now required for citizenship.⁵

1907 — Restrictions were placed on people with diseases and disabilities. Those with epilepsy were already prohibited per the Immigration Act of 1903.⁵

1917 — An immigration act, named simply for its year, was passed declaring that immigrants had to be able to read and write in their native tongue. Pre-inspections and better medical exams were introduced at the departure points at this time, making the process more efficient.⁶

1918 — A Presidential Proclamation added a passport requirement. As a result, the Immigration Service began to issue Border Crossing Cards to help with frequent travel over the northern and southern borders.⁶

1918 — A federal textbook on citizenship was published and distributed at public schools, allowing applicants to prepare for the naturalization process.⁸

1921 — The Emergency Quota Act set limits on the people who could immigrate. The number was limited to 3% of the total population in the U.S. already coming from a particular country, but the quotas were established based on history of ethnic grouping quotas per the more limited 1910 census,⁵ allowing more Northwestern Europeans to enter but severely limiting Southern and Eastern Europeans. At this point, immigrants were all white.

1924 — This year’s immigration act, which included the National Origins Act, is one for the history books. It set a numerical cap for immigration: 150,000 that year, primarily European. (Certain Asians could apply on a case by case basis.)⁵ U.S. Border Control was also established in order to deal with the unlawful immigration of excluded European migrants coming through Canada and Mexico as a result of the previous Quota Act. With more restriction came more appeals, and so the system continued to develop.³

1924 — Native Americans were granted citizenship though still precluded from voting in some states.¹ (For those without a physical address, i.e. those living on reservations and using a P.O. Box, voting is still barred!)⁹

1930s — Mass deportation ensued for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, even children who were American citizens.⁵

1934 — The Equal Nationality Act allowed residents who had come as children and lived in the country for at least five years to apply for citizenship and made naturalization easier for foreign husbands of American wives.⁵ Mexicans were obviously excluded from this, per the mass deportation even of some citizens during this time.

1943 —The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, and Chinese nationals within the country were allowed to become naturalized citizens. 105 new Chinese immigrants were allowed per year.⁵

1952 — The highly debated Immigration and Nationality Act, also called the McCarran-Walter Act, was a move toward restrictive immigration focused on desired labor skills. Ethnicity was also a factor.⁵

1953 — The Supreme Court found that the Bill of Rights did not apply to unlawful immigrants.⁵

1954 — Operation Wetback ensued as a deportation effort primarily towards Mexicans in California, Arizona, and Texas.⁵ The push and pull of labor needs continued to bring in and reject immigrants like these per the government’s will and the economic situation.

1965 — Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Hart-Cellar Act repealed the national origin quotas, initiated a visa system for family reunification and skills, and opened up immigration to non-Europeans.⁵ This was a major change for the country demographically, allowing for non-white immigrants, though discrimination persisted in terms of sexuality.

1980 — The Refugee Act established a resettlement program for people meeting the UNHCR requirements, prioritizing self-sufficiency in the U.S.¹⁰

1986 — The Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a punishable crime to hire unlawful immigrants.⁵

1990 — Per the new immigration act under George H. W. Bush, gay people were allowed to immigrate here, and English testing ceased as a requirement for immigrants.⁴

1990s — Undocumented immigration continued to increase, with Mexico leading the way well into the 2000s.⁵

1996 — The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act under President Clinton cracked down on unlawful immigration and expanded the definition of aggravated felony.⁵

2002 — Following the terrorist attack on 9/11/2001, transportation, customs, immigration, and border security agencies were moved under the Department of Homeland Security.⁵

2005 — The REAL ID act was initiated, creating both more standards and more restrictions.⁵

2010 — The DREAM Act was proposed as a way for immigrants who had come as children, among other requirements, to become citizens.⁵

2012 — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) began as an executive order, aiding immigrants who had come here unlawfully but as children by allowing them to work and deferring their deportation.⁵

This timeline takes us into the present decade, where shifts in immigration policy, including refugee caps, DACA, and as well as student visas, have been rapid, particularly under the Trump administration. For more resources on the current state of immigration, explore our sources below.


We thank the following sources for contributing their words and knowledge: 1. “Congress Granted Citizenship to All Native Americans Born in the U.S. June 2, 1924.” America's Story from America's Library. Accessed October 24, 2019.

2 “Early American Immigration Policies.” USCIS, September 26, 2013.

4 “Immigration Act of 1990.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 22, 2019.

5 “List of United States Immigration Laws.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 19, 2019.

7 “Origins of the Federal Immigration Service.” USCIS, September 23, 2013.

8 “Origins of the Federal Naturalization Service.” USCIS, September 23, 2013.

9 Rogers, Melissa, and Jean Schroedel. “Analysis | What Keeps Native Americans from Voting – and What Could Change This.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 18, 2018.

10 “The Refugee Act.” ACF, August 29, 2012.

Photo by Fabian Fauth on Unsplash

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