How immigration laws have changed.
The United States has always attracted large numbers of immigrants, often driven by economic and political events at home and abroad. Large expansions are usually followed by restrictions and retrenchment. U.S. laws often have led to unanticipated changes in the nature and composition of immigration flows.
Open borders: From the founding until the 1880s, borders were open under the Naturalization Act of 1790 that said, “Any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s and the California Gold Rush in 1849 drew many. From 1820 to 1880, Germany sent 3 million, Ireland 2.8 million and Britain 2 million. Chinese laborers began to arrive through San Francisco in the 1850s to build the railroads. The Great Wave of European migration peaked from 1900 to 1910, before the outbreak of World War I. From 1880 to 1930, 4.6 million arrived from Italy, 4 million from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 3.3 million from Russia, 2.8 million from Germany, 2.3 million each from Canada and Britain, and 1.1 million from Sweden.
Immigration Act of 1882:
Along with the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan and the Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887, this law banned Asian laborers from the United States. Congress also enacted a 50-cent head tax on all immigrants and banned entry of “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.”
National origins quotas, 192464:
These restrictions were enacted during an isolationist period after World War I and a backlash to the Great Wave of Southern and Eastern European migration. Quotas for each nationality were set at 2 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality residing in the United States in 1890. All but 14 percent of the quotas went to Northern and Western Europe. The Western Hemisphere was exempt. Many Mexican laborers entered during this time to expand and maintain the railroads. The ban on immigrants from the “Asia-Pacific Triangle” continued until China became a U.S. ally in World War II. In 1952, many countries in Asia and Africa were given token allotments of 100 visas.
Bracero program, 1942-64:
Intended to meet farm labor shortages during World War II, the program lasted 22 years and brought in 4.5 million workers from Mexico. It reached an annual peak of 450,000 workers in 1956. It proved unwieldy as well as harsh, and is widely believed to have laid the foundation for illegal Mexican immigration. It also gave birth to Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers of America. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965:
Enacted shortly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act in an era of liberalization, it abolished the national-origins quotas. The Civil Rights Act includes the phrase “national origin” as a prohibited class of discrimination. Initiated by President John Kennedy, who wrote the pamphlet, “A Nation of Immigrants,” it was carried to enactment after his assassination by his younger brother, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. The act created the structure of today's immigration system based on preferences for family reunification and to a lesser extent job skills. It also established the first quotas on Western Hemisphere immigration. Sponsors expected the measure's family unification provisions to open immigration to Italians, Poles and other Europeans excluded by the nationalorigins system. Instead, immigration shifted to Asia and Latin America. Refugees:
They were used as a foreign policy tool during the Cold War and in response to wars. President Dwight Eisenhower applied his parole power to admit 30,000 Hungarian refugees in 1956. President Lyndon Johnson welcomed Cubans upon signing the 1965 act the same day he said, “The days of unlimited immigration are over.” President Ronald Reagan spurned refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, where Marxist rebels were battling pro-U.S. governments, but welcomed Iranians. After the Vietnam War, more than 1 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were admitted. In 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees were admitted, with the largest numbers coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Myanmar and Iraq.
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986:
Backed by President Reagan, this law was intended to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants, whose population had reached 5 million, through a combination of amnesty and sanctions against employers who hired them. Debate extended over a decade. Employer sanctions soon failed because of rampant document fraud and a general unwillingness to enforce them. A special, looser amnesty for agriculture provided five times more legalizations than anticipated. Many of the farmworker applications were believed to be fraudulent, but immigration agents were too overwhelmed to check. No allowance was made for future flows, leading to further illegal entries. Many families remained in a “mixed status,” partly legal immigrants and partly those who had entered the U.S. illegally. Congress extended the amnesty in 1990 to include immigrants' family members.
Immigration Act of 1990:
The act amounted to a significant overhaul that increased legal immigration by about 40 percent, adding several employment-based visas while keeping family preferences largely intact. Many of today’s well known work visas such as the H-1B for the technology industry were created by this law.
An obscure provision of the 1990 overhaul, the “diversity visa” was intended to correct the exclusion of Irish and Italians by the 1965 act. By the time the law passed, however, Italians had lost interest in emigrating. The day it took effect, the Merrifield Post Office in Virginia, where applications were sent, received 1 million applications for 55,000 slots. A few years later, the Irish also lost interest as their economy boomed. Now used mainly by immigrants from Africa and Central Asia, the program works on a random lottery limited to countries that do not send large numbers of immigrants through other programs.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996:
A tough border crackdown initiated by the Republican-led Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, the 1996 law was a backlash to the amnesty enacted 10 years earlier. Spending on border enforcement soared. Combined with 1986 border measures, border enforcement spending rose from $1 billion to nearly $5 billion a year. Spending for detention and removal grew more than 750 percent. Barriers were erected in San Diego and El Paso, Texas. The law had the unanticipated result of interrupting circular migration patterns and trapping Mexican immigrants in the United States. Illegal immigration continued to rise until the Great Recession in 2008. Since then, unauthorized immigration from Mexico has declined, while increasing from other regions of the world, especially Central America and Asia, leaving the overall level roughly unchanged. Secure Fence Act of 2006: Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, the law added about 700 miles of fencing and walls to earlier physical barriers constructed in San Diego. Critics said the law militarized the southern border and fragmented habitats, while migrants skirted the fence by using more dangerous desert routes or by breaching, tunneling under or scaling the barriers.