September 30, 2015

How U.S. immigration laws and rules have changed through history

The United States began regulating immigration soon after it won independence from Great Britain, and the laws since enacted have reflected the politics and migrant flows of the times. Early legislation tended to impose limits that favored Europeans, but a sweeping 1965 law opened doors to immigrants from other parts of the world. In more recent years, laws and presidential actions have been shaped by concerns about refugees, unauthorized immigration and terrorism.

Click on the arrows below to explore the timeline.

——— % of the U.S. population that is foreign born

Source for the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born: U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” and Pew Research Center tabulations of 2010 and 2013 American Community Surveys (IPUMS).


1790 Naturalization Act

Excluded non-white people from eligibility to naturalize. Naturalization requirements included two years of residence in the country and “good moral character,” and an applicant must be a “free white person.” The Naturalization Act of 1795 extended the residency requirement to five years. In 1798, this was extended to 14 years, then back to five in 1802.


Alien Friends Act 1798

The Alien Friends Act authorized the president to imprison or deport any alien who was deemed dangerous to the U.S. This act was the first to authorize deportation for immigrants. It expired two years after it was enacted.


Alien Enemies Act 1798

The Alien Enemies Act authorized the imprisonment or deportation of male citizens (ages 14 and older) of a hostile nation during times of war; the act was used during World War II, and today a modified version permits the president to detain, relocate or deport alien enemies during war.


Immigration Act of 1864 (also known as An Act to Encourage Immigration)

To address labor shortages due to the Civil War, this act made contracts for immigrant labor formed abroad enforceable by U.S. courts. It also created a commissioner of immigration, appointed by the president to serve under the secretary of state.


Naturalization Act of 1870

Amends naturalization requirements to extend eligibility to individuals of African nativity or descent.


Immigration Act of 1875 (also known as Page Law or Asian Exclusion Act)

Prohibited the immigration of criminals and made bringing to the U.S. or contracting forced Asian laborers a felony. It is the nation’s first restrictive immigration statute.


Chinese Exclusion Act

Banned Chinese laborers from immigrating for the next 10 years and authorized deportation of unauthorized Chinese immigrants. Any Chinese immigrant who resided in the U.S. as of Nov. 17, 1880, could remain but was barred from naturalizing. The 1892 Geary Act extended this law for an additional 10 years and required that Chinese nationals obtain identification papers.


1891 Immigration Act

Expanded the list of exclusions for immigration from prior laws to include those who have a contagious disease and polygamists. Permitted the deportation of any unauthorized immigrants or those who could be excluded from migration based on previous legislation. Made it a federal misdemeanor to bring unauthorized immigrants into the country or aid someone who is entering the U.S. unlawfully. Established a federal Bureau of Immigration.


Immigration Act of 1903 (also known as Anarchist Exclusion Act)

Banned anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes from immigrating. It is the first U.S. law to restrict immigration based on immigrants’ political beliefs.


1917 Immigration Act (also known as “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”)

Banned immigration from most Asian countries, except the Philippines, which was a U.S. colony, and Japan, whose government voluntarily eliminated the immigration of Japanese laborers as part of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. Required immigrants over the age of 16 to demonstrate basic reading ability in any language.


1921 Emergency Quota Act

First U.S. law to create numerical quotas for immigration based on nationality. Quotas were equal to 3% of the foreign-born population of that nationality in the 1910 census. Immigration from Asian countries continued to be barred. Nationality quotas did not apply to countries in the Western Hemisphere, government officials or temporary visitors. Under this law, total annual immigration was capped at 350,000.


Labor Appropriation Act

Establishes U.S. Border Patrol as a federal law enforcement agency to combat illegal immigration and smuggling along the borders between inspection stations. In 1925, the agency’s duties expand to patrolling the seacoasts.


Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as 1924 National Origins Quota Act or Johnson-Reed Act)

Further restricted immigration decreasing the annual cap from 350,000 to 165,000. Nationality quotas equaled 2% of the foreign-born individuals of that nationality in the 1890 census with a minimum quota of 100. As a result, the law favored migration from northern and western European countries with longer histories of migration to the U.S. while limiting migration from eastern and southern European countries with newer immigration patterns. Immigration from Asian countries continued to be barred, and the law added a formal restriction on Japanese immigration. Denied entry to the U.S. to anyone who is ineligible to become a citizen due to race (only whites and people of African nativity or descent were eligible).


Bracero Agreement

A bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to permit Mexican nationals to serve as temporary agricultural workers during WWII labor shortages. Required employers to pay a wage equal to that paid to U.S.-born farmworkers and provide transportation and living expenses. In effect until 1964.


Magnuson Act (also known as Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943)

Repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and established a quota of about 105 Chinese immigrants per year. In contrast to other quotas, which are based on country of citizenship, the quota for Chinese was based on ancestry. Chinese residents were also eligible to naturalize.


Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as McCarran-Walter Act)

Formally removed race as an exclusion for immigration and naturalization and granted Asian countries a minimum quota of 100 visas per year (though this was still based on ancestry, not nationality; for example, a person with Chinese ancestry coming from the U.K. would be counted in the Chinese quota regardless of nationality/birthplace). Updated the national origins quota to one-sixth of 1% of each nationality’s population in the 1920 census. As a result, most spots were for immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. Under this law, political activities, ideology and mental health, among other criteria, served as a basis for exclusion and deportation. This law also created quota preferences for skilled immigrants and family reunification.


Refugee Relief Act

Authorized special non-quota visas for more than 200,000 refugees and allowed these immigrants to become permanent residents.


Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

In 1961, President Kennedy directed the secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (forerunner to the Department of Health and Human Services) to create a program to provide medical care, financial aid, help with education and resettlement, and child welfare services for Cuban refugees. The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act formalized the Cuban Refugee Program and assisted individuals in the Western Hemisphere fleeing “persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion or political opinion.”


1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as Hart-Celler Act) (1965 amendments)

Replaced the national origins quota system with a seven-category preference system emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants. (Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were exempt from the preference system until 1976.) No visa cap was placed on the number of immediate family members of U.S. citizens admitted each year. The Eastern Hemisphere was granted 170,000 of the total visas each year with a 20,000 cap per country. Beginning in 1968, the Western Hemisphere was given 120,000 visas annually with no specific country limits.


1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

The Ford administration began evacuating 130,000 Vietnamese in early 1975 as it became clear that South Vietnam would fall to the communist North. This act extended the refugee delineation to include those fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam and designated funds for the relocation and resettlement of refugees. In 1976, it was amended to include Laotian refugees.


Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976 and 1978

The 1976 amendments to the 1965 law included the Western Hemisphere in the preference system and the 20,000 per year visa limits. This mostly affected Mexico at the time since it was the only Western Hemisphere country that substantially exceeded 20,000 visas annually. In 1978, an amendment to the law established a worldwide limit of 290,000 visas annually. This removed the prior Eastern and Western hemisphere caps.


The Refugee Act of 1980

Creates a general policy for admission of refugees and adopts the United Nations’ refugee definition. Removes refugees from the immigration preference system, expanding the annual admission for refugees. The removal of refugees from the immigration preference system reduced the annual visa allocation to 270,000.

Subsequent executive action and legislation for refugees included deportation relief and admission based on region or nationality. Examples include the George H.W. Bush administration’s protection of Chinese nationals from deportation after Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 and the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998.


Immigration Reform and Control Act (also known as Simpson-Mazzoli Act)

Granted a pathway to permanent residency to unauthorized immigrant workers who lived in the U.S. since 1982 or worked in certain agricultural jobs. (Approximately 2.7 million were granted this status.) Creates the H-2A visa for temporary, seasonal agricultural workers. Imposes sanctions on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers and increases border enforcement.

In 1987, the Reagan administration decided that minor children of parents who were legalized under the 1986 law should be protected from deportation. In 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration decided that all spouses and unmarried children of people who were legalized under the 1986 law could apply for permission to remain in the country and receive work permits. (This policy was formalized in the Immigration Act of 1990.)


Immigration Act of 1990

Increased annual immigration cap to 700,000 during fiscal years 1992-1994, followed by 675,000 as of the 1995 fiscal year, and revises the preference categories. This allocates 480,000 family-sponsored visas, 140,000 employment-based visas, and 55,000 “diversity immigrant” visas annually. It also creates H-1B visas for highly skilled temporary workers and H-2B for seasonal, non-agricultural workers and revises the grounds for exclusion and deportation, particularly those based on political and ideological grounds. This act authorized the attorney general to grant “temporary protected status” (TPS) to nationals of countries suffering from armed conflicts, natural disasters or ““other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” Today, the secretary of homeland security may designate a country for TPS under the same conditions.


Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act

Increases enforcement at the border and in the interior, including mandates to build fences at the highest incidence areas of the Southwest border. Establishes or revises measures for worksite enforcement, to remove criminal and other deportable aliens and to tighten admissions eligibility requirements. Expands restrictions laid out in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on access to means-tested public assistance programs for new legal permanent residents and unauthorized immigrants.


Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act

Requires an electronic data system be used to make available information relevant to admissions and removability of immigrants; mandates implementation of a visa entry-exit data system (which becomes US-VISIT).


Homeland Security Act

In the wake of 9/11, the Homeland Security Act transfers nearly all the functions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).


Secure Fence Act

Following the failure of immigration reform legislation in the Senate, this law mandates the construction of a double-layered fence approximately 700 miles long (not yet completed, largely due to lack of funding) and increases staffing and technology at the Southwest border.


Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Through an executive action by President Obama, young adults (ages 15 to 30) brought to the U.S. illegally as children can apply for temporary deportation relief and a two-year work permit. As of March 31, 2015, roughly 665,000 applicants had been approved for DACA.


Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and DACA Program Expanded

A second executive action by Presiden Obama, it allows unauthorized immigrant parents who have lived in the U.S. at least five years and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to apply for deportation relief and a three-year work permit. Also expands eligibility for DACA to any unauthorized immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally as a child. This executive action is on hold as a state challenge works its way through the courts.

Click to see additional references

In addition to the following references, legislation text was used to develop the timeline.

DeSilver, Drew. 2014. “Executive Actions on Immigration have long history.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, November.

Ewing, Walter A. 2012. “Opportunity and Exclusion: A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy.” Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center, January. “Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.”

Migration Policy Institute. 2013. “Major U.S. Immigration Laws, 1790-Present.” Washington, D.C: March.

Neuman, Gerald L. and Charles F. Hobson. 2005. “John Marshall and the Enemy Alien: A Case Missing from the Canon.” New York, NY: Columbia Law School.

Passel, Jeffrey S. and Mark Hugo Lopez. 2012. “Up to 1.7 Million Unauthorized Immigrant Youth May Benefit from New Deportation Rules.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, August. “Immigration Policy: Past and Present”.

“Immigration Policy: Past and Present,” PBS.

Tichenor, Daniel J. 2002. “Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in American.” Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Waters, Mary C., Reed Ueda, Helen B. Marrow, eds. 2007. “The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2015. “Number of I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by Fiscal Year, Quarter, Intake, Biometrics and Case Status: 2012-2015 (March 31).”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Temporary Protected Status.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Border Patrol History.”

U.S. Department of State. “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations.”

University of Washington-Bothell. 2007. “U.S. Immigration Legislation Online.”

A 1790 law was the first to specify who could become a citizen, limiting that privilege to free whites of “good moral character” who had lived in the U.S. for at least two years. In 1870, the right of citizenship was extended to those of African origin.

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Starting in 1875, a series of restrictions on immigration were enacted. They included bans on criminals, people with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes. Other restrictions targeted the rising number of Asian immigrants, first limiting migration from China and later banning immigration from most Asian countries.

By the early 1900s, the nation’s predominant immigration flow shifted away from northern and western European nations and toward southern and eastern Europe. In response, laws were passed in 1921 and 1924 to try to restore earlier immigration patterns by capping total annual immigration and imposing numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored northern and western European countries.

Long-standing immigration restrictions began to crumble in 1943, when a law allowed a limited number of Chinese to immigrate. In 1952, legislation allowed a limited number of visas for other Asians, and race was formally removed as grounds for exclusion. Although a presidential commission recommended scrapping the national-origins quota system, Congress did not go along.

In 1965, though, a combination of political, social and geopolitical factors led to passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act that created a new system favoring family reunification and skilled immigrants, rather than country quotas. The law also imposed the first limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Before then, Latin Americans had been allowed to enter the U.S. without many restrictions. Since enactment of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, immigration has been dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America, rather than Europe.

Several laws since then have focused on refugees, paving the way for entrance of Indochinese refugees fleeing war violence in the 1970s and later including relief for other nationalities, including Chinese, Nicaraguans and Haitians. A 1990 law created the “temporary protective status” that has shielded immigrants, mainly Central Americans, from deportation to countries facing natural disasters, armed conflicts or other extraordinary conditions.

In 1986, Congress enacted another major law – the Immigration Reform and Control Act – that granted legalization to millions of unauthorized immigrants, mainly from Latin America, who met certain conditions. The law also imposed sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized immigrants. Subsequent laws in 1996, 2002 and 2006 were responses to concerns about terrorism and unauthorized immigration. These measures emphasized border control, prioritized enforcement of laws on hiring immigrants and tightened admissions eligibility.

The most recent changes in immigration policy have been an exception to that pattern. In 2012, President Obama took executive action to allow young adults who had been brought to the country illegally to apply for deportation relief and a work permit. In 2014, he expanded that program (known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA) and set up a new program to offer similar benefits to some unauthorized-immigrant parents of U.S.-born children. The DACA expansion and the new program (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA) are on hold because of a legal challenge by 26 states.

Topics: Immigration Attitudes, Immigration Trends, Immigration

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.