America Immigration and Naturalization Laws

Figure 1.--Ther was in the early 19th century no restrictions on immigration. One simply disembarkened and began looking for a job. Gradually Congress began passing law to regularize and limit immigration. One area of immigration reform was to ensure that immigrants were healthy.

Immigration was primarily from Western Europe. This was initially because of cultural and commercial ties to Europe. Immigration for much of the history of the United States was unregulated. Some states attempted to address the issue, but with little success. Some of the first American immigration laws restricted immigration to Europeans. The first U.S. immigration law prohibited American-flag vessels from transporting Chinese to America (1862). Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Even so, important immigration also occurred from China and later Japan, in part because there were exceptions granted for the family of Chinese already in America. Today many Chinse have a small number of family names because many arrived using the family names of individuals already in America rather than their real names. Congress passed a series of laws providing for the examination of immigrants and the exclusion of specified groups (convicts, ill individuals (sufferers of specifed diseases), polygamists, prostitutes, personal likely to become public charges, and others(1875, 1882, and 1892). Gradually a movement built for immigration reform. Although not often mentioned, immigration reform was part of the progressive movement for social reform in the late 19th cetury. [Graham] Major reforms to the immigration system came after World War I with the National Origins Act (1921, 24). This act set limits on immigration, reducing it and adopting national quotas encouraging immigration from Europe. Much of the Congressional debate focused on cultural difference rather than nationality and race. [Graham]Another immigration issue arose after World EWar II with the entrance of large number of Hispanics from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The Federal Government changed immigration laws in 1965 to proviode a less restrictive immigration mix.

Naturalization Act (1795)

Congress very early in American history addressed the question of naturalization or becoming a U.S. citizen with the Naturalization Act (1795). The Act restricted citizenship to "free white persons" who resided in the United States for 5 years and renounced their allegiance to their country of birth. The law was, however, most notable for what it did not address. There were no standards established and provided for no proof of citizenship after naturalization. There was no centalized system of record keeping. This became an increasing problem as immogration increased in the 19th century. There wee many cases of courts naturaliing large groups right before elections. While Congress did address the naturalization question, it did not address immigration at all. his mean there were no controls or limitations on entering the United states.

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)

The French Revolution became the subject of an acrimonious debate between the two developing political parties in the United States--the Federalists and Republicans (who developed into the Democratic Party). Part of the debate was whether American should join republican France in its war with Britain. President Washington with his prestige attempted to discourage the development of political parties and insisted that the young american Republic remain neutral. These issues became more openly debated after John Adams was elected president (1796). The Federlist dominated Congress sought to limit the Reoublican press and foreign activity with the passage of the alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts permitrf the President to deport foreigners that he concluded were dangerous.

Naturalization Act (1795)

The Federalist dominated Congress also revised the 1995 Naturalization Act, extending the required residency requirement to 14 years.

Naturalization Act (1802)

Republican President Thomas Jefferson won election and with him strong Republican majorities in both houses of Congress (1800). The now Republican dominted Congress reduced the residency requirement for citizenship back to the to 5 years initially specified by Congress.

Louisian Purchase (1803)

The Louisiana Purchse brought a huge area of North america into the Union. Except for New Orleans the Territory was not heavily populated. New Orleans hd a largely Fremch population. Few Spaiards lived in the Territory. Most of the Territory was thinly populated by a diverse group of Native Americans. The Louis and Clarke Expedition provided the first detailed account of these tribes.

Ending the Atlantic Slave Trade (1808)

The U.S. Constitution does not use the term slavery, but there are indirect references of considerable importance. One was a provision prohibiting Congress from taking any action against the Atlantic slave trade until 1808. Congress as soon as it was allowed, passed a law prohibiting the importation of Aftican slaves (1808). I am mot sure why the southern slave states did not forcefully opose this law. One impact ws that it made the slaves already in the country more valuable.

Pennsylvania Language Law (1831)

The primcipal non-British immigrant group in the early 19th century were Germans. Pennsylvania had an especially large Geran immigrant population. The Pennsylvania legislature passed a law permiting bilingual instruction in English and German in its public schools.

Increased Immigration (1840s)

Immigration had occurred throughout the early 19th century, but at relatively low levels. Several events occurred in the 1840s that significantly increased the number of immigrants. The most important development was the Irish Potato Famine (1845-48). Destiture Irish peasants began arriving in large numbers. The abject poverty of the Irish as well as their Catholcism disturbed many americans. As a result, there are today more Irish in America than Ireland. There were crop failures in Germany, but nothing along the dimensions of the Great Famine in Ireland. The Revolutions of 1848 also caused inceased immigration, especially from Germany. The discovery of gold in California (1848) brought more immigrants and for the first time, Chinese immigrants.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)

The annextation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846-48) brought many Hispanics within the border of the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the War granted full citizenship to the to the approximately 80,000 Mexican living in the southwest territories.

Congressional Debates (1850s)

The expanded immigration of the 1840s, especially the arrival of Catholics and Chinese made the question of immigration and naturalization a matter of increasing concern. The Know Nothing political party in particular pushed for action to restrict immigration. There was, however, no law passed. Probably the nations increasing obsession with slavery and sectional politics prevented any action on immigration.

California State Actions (1854)

California was part of the area annexed from Mexico. It soon entered the Union (1850). After the discovery of gold, the arrival of Chinese immigrants caused considerble concern. Newspapers begn discussing the "Yellow Peril". At the time there was no restrictions on immigration. The California Legislature passed a law prohibiting Chinese from testifying against whites in California state courts.

Emancipation of Slaves (1863-65)

Slavery eventually led to Civil War (1861-65), the blodiest conflict in American history. While the Federal Government persued the War at irst as a campaign for union, President Lincoln turned it into a crusade against slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was an initial war-time measure (1863). The President, Republican Congress, and Republican-dominated state legislatures made emamcipation court-proff through the 13th Amendment. But Emancipation only ended slavery. The Republicans took a further step. The 14th and 15th Amendments made the emancipated slaves full citizens and guaranted the right to vote. This was proportionally the largest increase in citizens in thevhostory of the Republic. While this was largely undone by Southern legislatures, white racists could not undo the two amendments which 100 years later were used to undo the ediface of segregation and second-class citizenship.

Naturalization Act (1870)

Congress pssed the Naturalization Act of 1870 which restricted citizenship to "white persons and persons of African descent". This effectively denined U.S. citizenship to Asians.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This restricted Chinese immigration. It was the first Congressional action on immigration.

Immigration Act (1882)

Congress also passed the Immigration Act in 1882. It imposed a 50 cent head tax on each immigrant. It also established several categories of immigrants who were deemed ineligible to enter the United States. They included "lunatics" and people who might become public charges.

Alien Contract Labor Law (1885)

Comgrress pased the Alien Contract Labor Law (1885). The Act prohibited companies and indivisuals from bringing foreigners into the United States under contract to work. The exceptions were immigrants contacted towork as domestic servants or skilled craftsmen needed here to help establish a new trade or industry.

Immigration Act (1891)

Congress passed another immigration law (1891). Congress added new groups to the list of excludeable groups. The new groups included polygamists, "persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease", and those convicted of "a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude". Moral terpitude meant a vile or depraved act, but was nor defined in the Act. The Act also establishes the Bureau of Immigration within the Treasury Department.

Ellis Island (1892-1954)

The Federal Government opened Ellis Island in New York Harbor (1892). It would become the primry entry point for immigrants. No site is more associated with immigration to America than Ellis Island in New York harbor. Immigration was at first largely unestricted, but by the 1890s new laws began to regularize immigration. The symbol of this was the grand brick and limestone buildings constructed on Ellis Islands where immigrants entering the United States through New York were processed. The new facilities were opened (1900). Between 1892 and 1924 over 22 million passengers and members of ships'crews came through Ellis Island and the Port of New York. The facility continued to operate until 1954, but Congress sharply scaled back immigration by establishing national quotas in 1924.

Anarchist Exclusion Act (1901)

Socialism was mnot the only reaction to industrial capitalism. Another movement of considerable importance in the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe was Anarchism. Anarchists rejected the state and government as not only unecessary, but actually harmful. It was strongest in socities like Russia and Austria-Hungary which did not permit open political debate. Anarchists thus took to using targeted violence to achieve their political aims. There were Amercan anarchists, but they were mostly immigrants. Americans tended to lump Communits and Anarchists together and they did in fact cooperate to varying degrees. They were actually very diffefent and Lennin after seizing power in Russia, quicky suppressed the Anarchists. The Anarchists attempted to assainate various European monarchs. Their gretest success was the assaination of Tsar Alexander II (1881). The result was catrostrophic, however, as it brought to power his reactionary son as Alexander III. This resulted in a flood of Jewish immigrants to American and Germany. A Polish anarchist assainated President William McKinley (1901). Congress responded with the Anarchist Exclusion Act. It was the first action targetting immigrant political beliefs since the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). The new Act esablished Anarchism as another excludeable group.

Depatment of Commerce and Labor (1903)

Congress transferrd the Office of Immigration from the Treasury Department to the new Commerce and Labor Deprtment (Februry 1903). The name was changed to the Bureau of Immigration. Congress also expanded the authority of the Comissioner General of Immigration to make rules and enforce immigration laws.

Immigration Act (1903)

Congress passed another immigration law (1903). There were no major new provisions. The 1903 ather codified existing immigration law.

Naturalization Act (1906)

A special commission was appointed to assess the immigration process. Congressed using the findings of the special commission passed the landmark Naturalization Act (June 1906). It estanlished the process for naturalization which is still which set the basic rules for nat which are still the basic system used today. The Act made naturalization a Federal responsivility for the first time. Congress increased the Bureau's reponsibility and change the name to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturlization. Courts were still responsible for approving or denying citzenship . The Act assigned forms which had to be filled out in duplicate and filed with the Bureau. The Act required applicants to speak English and peronally sign the forms. Anarchist immigrants had been excludedc (1903). The 1906 Act established Anarchists as ineligible for naturalization. And the political exclision was broadened to included individuals who believed in overthwing the U.S. or other governmet by force or who believed in assasination. The Act extended the period to deport inadmisables. It also authorized the deportation of individuals who became public charges within 2 years of immigration if it was a condition exising at the time of immigration. The Act also reaffirmed the Contract Law of 1885.

Immigration Act (1907)

Congress passed the Immigration Act (February 1907). It also coddified existing immigration law, but included many new provisions. Congress required aliens entering the United States to declare their "intention of permanent or temporary stay in the United States" and classified aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants. (No definition until the 1924 Act ("all other alien entries into the United States"). The Act reaffirmed manifesting of water (sea) etrants and added a similar requirement for departures. Congrss added additional excludeable classes (imbicles, feeble-minded, physical oe mental defects that would impair ability to make a living, tuberculosis, children unaccompanied by parents, persons who had committed a crime involving moral turpitude, and women coming for imoral purposes. (This was one of various provisions aimed excluseively ar women. Notice there is no restriction on men coming for imoral purpses.) Congress created exceptions to the contract Lbor Law (actors, artists, ministers, professors, and domestic sevants). The Act extended authority to deport immigrants who hd become public charges with 2 years to 3 years and gave the President the aithority to refuse admission when detrimental to labor conditions. This was widely seen as aimed at Japanese laborors.

Dillingham Commission (1907-11)

Senator William P. Dillingham headed a commission to study immigration (1907). This was the peak year of immigration to the United states. The Commission isued its final report in 42 volumes (1911). The essential conclusion was "The nation must regulate the kind or type of immigrants admitted."

Expatriation Act (1907)

Congress passed the Expatriation Act (1907). It was another restriction aimed at women. The Act provided that an American woman who marries a foreign national loses her citizenship. No comparable provision was passed for men.

Gentleman's Agreement (1907)

The United States negotiated an immigration agreement with Japan (1907). The United States agrees not to legally restrict Japanese immigration from Japan. Japan in return agreed not to issue passports to Japanese laborers for travel to the continental United States. Japanese laborer were permitted to go to Hawaii which the United States had recently acquired. President Roosevelt issued an executive order prohbitig Japanes in Hawaii from migrating to the mainland United States.

Commerce and Labor Departments Split (1913)

Congress split the Commerce and Labor Department into two separate departments (1913). Congress also divided the Bireau of Immigration and Naturalization into two separate offices. They both were included in the new Department of Labor. The two were reconsolidated in the Immigrations and Naturalization Service (1933). Congress fixed fees and naturalization forms.

World War I (1914-18) Huge numbers of immigrants entered the United States in the early 20th century. There were still no numericl limits on immigration. The War, however, cut off two of the major sources of immigration. Russians were cut off by the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was cut off by the Allies and in 1917 became an enemy nation. In addition, coombatant nations were not anxious to lose men needed for military service. Immigration dropped sharply during the War years, but began to increase again immedately after the War.

Immigration Act (1917)

Congress passed another new immigration law (1917). The Act added two new excludeable groups: 1) iliterates 2) Aiatic Barred Zone (Asia and the Pacific). The literacy test had long been debated by Congress. The Act expanded the power of immigtion officers and regularized deportation procedures It created a system to admit certain excludable groups in special circimstances. It ibcreased the head tax to $8. The head tax had long been a measure desired by groups desiring to limit immigration. President Wilson vetoed the bill, objecting to the literact test. (Notavly the President had no objection to the literacy tests being used in the South to deny blacks the right to vote.) Congress overode the President's veto (February 5). Through this law, Congressional immigration laws had - restricted who entered the United states, but placed no limitation on the numbers who entered. The Act gve the President the authority to deport immigants without time limitation in serious instances.

Entry and Departure Controls Act (1918)

Congress passed the Entry and Departure Controls Act (May 1918). This was in reaction to the large number of German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants who had entered the United States. The concern was primarily directed at gthe German immogrants. Most of the Austro-Hugarian immigrants were from ethnic minorities that were generally hostile to the Austro-Hungarian Government. The German invasion of neutral Belgium and the use of submarines in attacks where Americans were killed as well as effective British propaganda had effectively painted the Germans as villians in the War. The Zimmerman Telegram and the reintroduction of un-restricted submarine warfare finally brought America into the War. This was followed by German sabatoge. One response was Congress' passage of the Entry and Departure Controls Act (May 1918). The Act authorized the President to control the departure and etry of aliens during war and national emergencies . This would be done by the Bureau of Immigration. It was left to the President to determine if their resence was contrary to public saftey.

Quota Law (1921)

After the Armistace ending the War (November 1918) immigration quickly resumed. Immigration increased in 1919 but was still below pre-War levels. Immigration in 1920 was three times that in 1919. A number of factors came together in 1920 to increase politicl pressure for limits to be placed on immigration. In the aftermath of War, armanents orders plummeted at the same time that soldiers returned from France. Many men had a hard time finding jobs. A housing shortage developed, a Red Scare was centered on immigrants, and a flu epidemic also blamed on immigrants caused more fatalities in America than the War itself. As Congress worked on a new law, there was a frezied dash to get unto the country. One of the last vessels to arrive was the Cunard liner the Saxonia. Thy got to Ellis Island just in time, but there was no room to unload the 800 immigrants. They were landed at pier 53 and had to camp out for 4 days until they could be processed at Ellis Island. Congress passed the Quota Law (May 1921). It was a temporary measure. The Quota Law established the first numerical limitation on immigration. Quotas wre established for individual countries. The quota was 3 percet of the foreign-born of that nationality who lived in the United States during 1910. The overall quota was set at 350,000 immigrants ad the largest quoras were given to the countries of northern and western Europe. Exemption were made for aliens who had resided continuously at least 1 year in independent Western Hemisphere countries. Other exemptions were made for aliens in transit, foreign government officials and their houeholds as well as countries with immigration regulated by bilateral treaty. Special provision was made for actors, artists, lecturers, singers, nurses, ministers, professors, domestic servants, and members of learened professions who were admitted on a non-quota basis.

Quota Law (1922)

Congress renewed the 1921 Quota Law and extended it for 2 years (May 1922). There were a few amendments to the 1921 law. The required Westen Hemisphere residency rquirement was increased from 1 to 5 years. There were also tough provisions added to ensure that transportaion firms followed the regulations.

Immigration Act (1924)

Congress passed a new immigration law which plced permanent numerical limits on immigration (May 1924). This was the first prmanent numerical limit on immigration. The Act established the National Origins Quota System. It received broad bi-partisan support. The Act passed 308 to 58 in the House and 69 to 9 in the Senate. The population of national groups as reported in the 1890 census was used as a base. This tended to sharplu reduce the quota for Italian and other southern as well as eastern European countries. The overall quota was set at 150,000 immigrants. It also established the consuar control system. New provisions raised the quota to 165,00 by 1934. Britain and Northern Ireland received a quota of 66,000, Ireland 18,000, and Germany 30,000. Italy had a quota of only 6,000 and the Soviet Union only 3,000. A second quota provision was to be made permanent in 1927, but postponed until 1929. The National Origins Quota System was given a total of 150,000 immigrants with national quotas based on the 1920 population. A Preferece Quota Status wasestablished for unmairred childen under 21, parents, spouces (of U.S. citizens over 21), and for quota immigrants skilled in agriculture. Non-quota status was given to wives and unmairred childre under 18 of U.S. citizens and citizens of west hemisphere countries. Gradually provisions descrinating aginst womem were removed, although not entirely until 1952.


Graham. Otis, Jr. Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis (Rowman Littlefield: 2004).


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main U.S. immigration page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Essays]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[ Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: 12:32 AM 11/1/2004
Last updated: 11:58 PM 9/15/2006