Fifty years ago, the U.S. enacted a sweeping immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced longstanding national origin quotas that favored Northern Europe with a new system allocating more visas to people from other countries around the world and giving increased priority to close relatives of U.S. residents.

Just prior to passage of the 1965 law, residents of only three countries—Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom—were entitled to nearly 70% of the quota visas available to enter the U.S. (U.S. Department of Justice, 1965).4 Today, immigration to the U.S. is dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America, with immigrants from all of Europe accounting for only 10% of recent arrivals.

The 1965 law undid national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s, which were written into laws that imposed the first numerical limits on immigration. Those laws were the culmination of steadily tightening federal restrictions on immigration that began in the late 1800s with prohibitions or restrictions on certain types of immigrants, such as convicts, in addition to a ban on Chinese migrants and later virtually all Asian migrants.

This chapter explores the history of immigration law in the U.S., focusing on provisions of major legislation from the 20th century onward. Accompanying this chapter is an interactive timeline (below) of U.S. immigration legislation since the 1790s.

New Restrictions in the 1920s

The visa arrangement in place when the 1965 law was passed was a legacy from half a century earlier. At that earlier time, a giant wave of immigration that began in the late 1800s had raised the nation’s population of foreign-born residents to a then-record high of 13.9 million in 1920, making up a near-record 13% of the U.S. population (Gibson and Jung, 2006; Passel and Cohn, 2008).5 The first arrivals in this wave were mainly Northern Europeans, but by the early 1900s most new arrivals came from Italy, Poland and elsewhere in Southern and Eastern Europe (Martin, 2011).

Latin American, Asian Immigrants Make Up Most of Post-1965 Immigration Reacting to the change in immigrant origins, laws enacted in the 1920s sought to return U.S. immigration patterns to those that prevailed decades earlier, when Northern Europeans were the largest group of immigrants. A 1921 law imposed the first overall numerical quota on immigration to the U.S.—about 350,000, reduced to 165,000 in 1924 (Martin, 2011). The 1924 law set annual quotas for each European country based on the foreign-born population from that nation living in the U.S. in 1890.6 The 1921 and 1924 laws exempted from the new quota highly skilled immigrants, domestic servants, specialized workers such as actors and wives or unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens, and the 1924 law also created preferences for quota visas for certain family members and agricultural workers (Martin, 2011).

Nationality quotas were imposed only on Europe, not on countries in the Western Hemisphere. There were no quotas for Asia, because immigration from most countries there already was prohibited through other restrictions imposed in 1875 and expanded in later decades.

These laws were passed against a backdrop of growing federal regulation of immigration, which was mainly controlled by states until a series of Supreme Court rulings in the late 1800s declared that it was a federal responsibility. Aside from country limits, federal laws already in place barred immigration by criminals, those deemed “lunatics” or “idiots,” and people unable to support themselves, among others (U.S. Department of Homeland Security). These laws also required that immigrants older than 16 prove they could read English or some other language. The federal immigration bureaucracy, created in 1891, grew in the 1920s with creation of the Border Patrol and an appeals board for people excluded from the country (U.S. Department of Homeland Security).

Immigration slowed sharply after the 1920s. But there were some exceptions to U.S. immigration restrictions. For example, because of labor shortages during World War II, the U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement in 1942 creating the Bracero program to allow Mexican agricultural workers to enter the U.S. temporarily. The program lasted until 1964.

Longstanding bans on immigration from Asia were lifted in the 1940s and 1950s. A prohibition on Chinese immigration enacted in 1882 was repealed in 1943. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act included the first quotas, though small, allowing immigrants from Asian nations, and created a preference system among quota visas that included highly skilled workers for the first time.

President Harry S. Truman, who opposed national origin quotas, appointed a commission to review the nation’s immigration policy after Congress passed the 1952 law over his veto. The commission’s report criticized the national origin quotas for perpetuating racial and national discrimination. The commission recommended that national origin quotas be replaced by higher limits with priority status based on granting asylum, reunifying families and meeting the nation’s labor needs (President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, 1953). Congress did not act on those recommendations, but in 1953 it did approve a commission proposal for separate quotas for refugees (Martin, 2011).

The 1965 Law Brings Major Change

It was not until 1965, when amendments were passed to the Immigration and Naturalization Act, that the old national origins system was abolished.

Instead, the new law emphasized visas for family and employment categories, but exempted spouses, parents and minor children of U.S. citizens from those visa limits. That exemption, and other priority given to family members of U.S. residents, meant that about three-quarters of visas were set aside for relatives of those already in the U.S.—putting the emphasis in U.S. immigration policy on family reunification.

Most remaining visas were for employment purposes, given to people with certain job skills and their family members. The Labor Department was required to certify that an American worker was not available to fill the job of the visa seeker and that U.S. workers would not be harmed if the visa were issued (Martin, 2011).

The 1965 law also included a quota for refugees, who were granted 6% of annual visas, compared with 74% for families; 10% for professionals, scientists and artists; and 10% for workers in short supply in the country (Kritz and Gurak, 2005). Later, the Refugee Act of 1980 separated refugee admissions from the overall quota system, expanded the definition of a refugee and set up comprehensive procedures for handling refugees.

Although the 1920s-era national origins quotas were abolished, the new 1965 law did include total hemisphere and country quotas. Though the hemisphere quotas were dropped in the following decade (Martin, 2011). Importantly, the law imposed the first limits on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries, including Mexico. Those limits, combined with the end of the Bracero program in 1964, are associated with a rise in unauthorized immigration, mostly from Mexico.7

Scholars attribute passage of the 1965 law in part to the era’s civil rights movement, which created a climate for changing laws that allowed racial or ethnic discrimination, as well as to the growing clout of groups whose immigration had been restricted (Martin, 2011). The economy was healthy, allaying concerns that immigrants would compete with U.S.-born workers (Reimers, 1992). Some, however, say that geopolitical factors were more important, especially the image of the U.S. abroad in an era of Cold War competition with Russia (FitzGerald and Cook-Martin, 2015). Labor unions, which had opposed higher immigration levels in the past, supported the 1965 law, though they pushed for changes to tighten employment visas. And political players changed: President Lyndon B. Johnson lobbied hard for the bill, and a new generation of congressional leaders created a friendlier environment for it (Martin, 2011).

Its sponsors praised the law for its fairness but downplayed its potential impact on immigration flows. “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions,” Johnson said in remarks at the signing ceremony. “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

Laws Since 1965

In the 1970s and early 1980s, new laws mainly focused on the growing flow of refugees from Southeast Asia. Since then, concerns about unauthorized immigration have guided the nation’s immigration policy agenda. In 1986, Congress addressed the growing issue of unauthorized immigration with the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered temporary protection from deportation and legal permanent resident status to millions of people who had lived in the country since the 1980s. Roughly 2.7 million people were given legal status under the law’s general legalization or its special program for farmworkers.

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of visas for legal immigrants coming for family and employment reasons and created a new category of visas for “diversity immigrants.” Among other provisions, it also created a new type of relief from deportation for nationals of countries undergoing armed conflicts, environmental or health disasters, or other “extraordinary and temporary conditions,” known as “temporary protected status,” which has been used mainly by Central American immigrants.

The primary emphasis of more recent immigration legislation has been to reduce government benefits to immigrants, increase border security and provide broader reasoning for excluding immigrants on terrorism grounds (Migration Policy Institute, 2013).

Notable exceptions to that pattern were President Barack Obama’s two recent executive actions on unauthorized immigration—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) in 2014. DACA allowed young adults, ages 15 to 30, who had been brought illegally to the U.S. as children to apply for deportation relief and a temporary work permit. In 2014, the president eliminated the age limits for DACA eligibility. Under DAPA, some unauthorized immigrants with U.S.-born children were allowed to apply for deportation relief and a work permit. The 2014 actions are on hold because of a legal challenge filed by 26 states (Lopez and Krogstad, 2015).