Foundations of the Immigration Power
Overview and History of US Immigration Law and Policy
Brief History Of Immigration to the US
After the American Revolution it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass any extensive immigration laws:
First, it was unclear whether the federal government was even intended by the Constitution to have
power to regulate immigration
The US Constitution included no language that
granted Congress authority to
Second, the US government officially favored immigration during this period
People were needed to build the US
Many US citizens thought their new nation as an experiment in freedom - to be shared by all
Thus, apart from piecemeal legislation, the first one hundred years of the nation’s existence could be
characterized as a period of unrestricted immigration.
Restriction Begins -- Excluding the Unwanted
After Civil War, federal law began to reflect the growing desire to restrict immigration of certain groups
The first federal statutes limiting immigration, enacted in 1875 and 1882, prohibited the entry of
criminals, prostitutes, idiots, lunatics, and persons likely to become a public charge
These statutes were a “quality control” measures.
The 1882 Act also for the first time imposed a head tax on every arriving immigrant. This
served the underlying function of deterring the immigration of people unable to pay.
Chinese Exclusion Laws
In 1882, 1884, 1888, and 1892, Congress enacted the so-called “Chinese exclusion laws,”
and these became the first federal immigration statutes to be subjected to judicial scrutiny
These laws were aimed at stemming the tide of Chinese immigration and were the
product of economic and political concerns as well as racism and nativism.
added the “diseased,” “paupers,” and “polygamists” to list of excludable persons.
It also established the Bureau of Immigration, the forerunner of the INS.
At the turn of the century, there was a sharp increase in immigration, and Congress tried to stem the flow
by excluding more classes of immigrants:
In 1903, a new law excluded epileptics, the “insane,” “beggars,” and “anarchists.”
In 1907, the feebleminded, the tubercular, and those persons with a mental or physical defect that
“may affect” their ability to earn a living were added to the list.
Japanese immigration was restricted by a 1907 agreement negotiated between Japan and the US.
In 1917, over Pres. Wilson’s veto, Congress enacted legislation that made
literacy a requirement for entry
One important purpose of the act was to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe, which
was accomplished by barring people unable to read.