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This timeline addresses milestones in immigration and government policies.

1819Immigration Act Is Passed

The first major federal law specifically addressing immigration is enacted. The Immigration Act includes establishment of reporting on immigration to the United States.

1882Restrictions Imposed On Immigration

More than 5.2 million immigrants enter the country through 1890. A large influx from China prompts the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denies Chinese laborers entry into the U.S. and citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1882 levies a 50-cent tax on immigrants landing at U.S. ports and makes several categories of immigrants, including “lunatics,” ineligible for citizenship. Over time, the banned list includes, among others, convicts, prostitutes and polygamists.

1892Ellis Island Immigration Center Opens

The Ellis Island Immigration Center opens in New York City’s harbor. It will process 12 million immigrants by the time it closes in 1954. The center is run by the Bureau of Immigration, created in 1891 under the Treasury Department.

1910Angel Island Immigration Center Opens

The Angel Island Immigration Station opens in San Francisco Bay to control the flow of Asians into the country. These center is run by the Bureau of Immigration, created in 1891 under the Treasury Department.

1911Dillingham Report Warns Of Subversion

The Dillingham Commission publishes a 42-volume report warning that the “new” immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe threatens to subvert American society. Its recommendations pave the way for the Quota Acts of the 1920s. The first act, the National Origins Act of 1921, limits immigrants to 3 percent of each nationality present in the U.S. in 1910. The second act in 1924 changes the quota to 2 percent of each nationality based on numbers in the United States in 1890. The Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 prohibits most immigrants from Asia.

1924U.S. Border Patrol Established

The U.S. Border Patrol is created, in large part to control Chinese immigration to the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border. Also, the Immigration and Naturalization Act imposes the first permanent numeric limits on immigration.

1940Alien Registration Act Passed

The Alien Registration Act requires all immigrants over the age of 14 to be fingerprinted and registered. A decade later, all immigrants are required to report their addresses annually.

1943War Influences Immigration Laws

In the interest of unity among the allies in World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed. In 1946, new procedures ease the immigration of foreign-born wives, husbands and children of U.S. military personnel. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allows 205,000 European refugees over two years, giving priority to those from the Baltic states. The law is intended to help victims of Nazi persecution or those fleeing persecution based on race, religion or politics. Later, 200,000 more refugees will be allowed in the country.

1952Quota System Is Revised

The Immigration and Nationalist Act, known as the McCarran-Walter Act, eliminates all race-based quotas and replaces them with purely nationality-based quotas. To enforce the quotas, the law creates the Immigration and Naturalization Service. However, the Immigration Act of 1965, known as the Hart-Celler Act, abolishes national origins quotas, establishing separate ceilings for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Categories of preference are based on family ties, critical skills, artistic excellence, and refugee status.

1956Immigrants Escape Unrest In Their Countries

Refugees flee to the United States after upheaval in their countries: the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union; the 1959 Cuban revolution; the fall of Saigon in 1975, ending the Vietnam War; and in 1978, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the fall of the Communist Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia.

1986Crackdown On Illegal Immigrants

As pressure grows to curtail illegal immigration, Congress enacts the Immigration Control and Reform Act, supported by President Ronald Reagan. The sweeping reforms are supposed to tighten the border with Mexico, toughen criminal sanctions for employers who hire illegal immigrants, deny illegal immigrants federally funded welfare benefits, and offer amnesty to any immigrant who entered the country before 1982. The effort was viewed as a failure since the U.S. did not regain control of the border and the amnesty incentive drew more illegal immigrants.

2001Terrorist Attacks Prompt Tougher Restrictions

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the U.S. Patriot Act amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to broaden the scope of immigrants ineligible for admission or deportable because of terrorist activities. The new Department of Homeland Security replaces the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

2004Struggle Over Illegal Immigrants

President George W. Bush calls for an overhaul of the immigration laws, proposing a guest worker program that would “match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.” Immigrants would be authorized as guest workers for three years, then required to return home. The legislation goes nowhere. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 authorizes construction of hundreds of miles of additional fencing along the southern border, more vehicle barriers, checkpoints and lighting, and increased use of advanced technology, such as cameras and satellites, to prevent illegal border crossings.

2010States Enact Tough Immigration Laws

Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for a sweeping change in federal immigration laws, but little is achieved on the controversial issue. In the absence of federal laws, state legislatures begin to combat illegal immigration with their own tough laws, such as restricting access to public benefits and driver’s licenses and cracking down on human smuggling.

2012Court Upholds Tough Ariz. Immigration Law

The Supreme Court unanimously upholds the centerpiece of Arizona’s strict immigration law but strikes down other provisions. The heart of the law, known as the “show me your papers” provision, is affirmed. It requires state law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of individuals who are stopped or arrested if the officials have reason to suspect they are in the U.S. illegally. The majority opinion rejects provisions that would have penalized illegal immigrants for activities such as seeking work. The Court says this provision and others in the law interferes with the federal government’s role in setting immigration policy.

2013Bipartisan Group Addresses Illegal Immigration

Dormant for several years, the issue of illegal immigration gained traction during the 2012 presidential campaign. Latino voters turned out in record numbers for President Barack Obama, who captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. Both parties take notice of the numbers, and in early 2013, a bipartisan group of senators proposes numerous changes, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country if the borders are secured.

2019Court Broadens Power To Detain Immigrants With Criminal Records

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that the government can detain – without a hearing – immigrants with criminal records, even if years have passed since they were released from criminal custody. The case centered on whether detention without a bond hearing must occur promptly upon an immigrant’s release from custody or whether it can happen months or even years later. The dissenters said that the ruling denied the immigrants “the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law.”

2020Effort To End Program For Undocumented Immigrants Blocked

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end a program that has protected 700,000 so-called Dreamers from deportation. Under the Obama program, undocumented individuals brought to the U.S. as children were given temporary legal status if they graduated from high school or were honorably discharged from the military, and if they passed a background check. The ruling said the administration had not provided proper legal justification for ending the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The case is Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California.

2020Court Upholds Limits On Asylum Seekers

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, says that asylum seekers who are quickly turned down by U.S. immigration officials do not have a right to make their case in federal court. Immigrants who make a claim for asylum must initially prove to immigration officials that they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their country of origin to proceed with the full asylum process.
In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. rejected a lower court’s ruling that the Constitution guarantees a “meaningful opportunity” for asylum seekers to make their case to a judge if they are turned down in an initial screening. The decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam allows the Trump administration to fast-track deportations for thousands of asylum-seekers.


2021Undocumented Immigrants Bear Burden To Challenge Deportation

The U.S. Supreme Court makes it more difficult for undocumented immigrants with criminal records to avoid deportation. In a 5-3 ruling in Pereida v. Wilkinson, the majority said that under immigration law, immigrants must prove that their violations aren’t among those that Congress said require mandatory deportation. The Court said that Clemente Pereida, who has lived in the United States for 25 years and is facing deportation for a misdemeanor conviction, did not meet the burden of proof.

2021High Court Rules Against Immigrants With Temporary Status

The U.S. Supreme Court rules unanimously in Sanchez v. Mayorkas that immigrants allowed to stay in the United States temporarily for humanitarian reasons are ineligible to apply to become permanent residents. Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court that federal immigration law prohibits people who entered the country illegally and now have Temporary Protected Status from seeking “green cards” to remain in the country permanently. Temporary Protected Status applies to people who come from countries ravaged by war or disaster. It protects them from deportation and allows them to work legally. There are 400,000 people from 12 countries with TPS status.

2021Court Rules Against Immigrants Who Fear For Safety In Home Countries

The U.S. Supreme Court in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez decides 6-3 against immigrants who say they face persecution or torture in their home countries if they are deported. Under consideration were the rights of a small subset of immigrants: those who were deported once before but reentered the United States illegally because they say they faced threats at home. At issue was a complex federal law that authorizes the government to detain immigrants and which section of it applies to these types of cases. One part of the law says that “the alien may receive a bond hearing before an immigration judge” and thus the chance to be free while proceedings continue. In the other, the immigrant is considered “removed,” and indefinite detention is warranted. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said it was the second that applied, and the detainees do not get a bond hearing. Alito wrote: “Aliens who reentered the country illegally after removal have demonstrated a willingness to violate the terms of a removal order, and they therefore may be less likely to comply with the reinstated order” that they leave, he said.

2022‘Remain in Mexico’ Immigration Program May Be Rescinded, Court Says

The U.S. Supreme Court rules by a 5-4 vote in Texas v. Bidenthat the Biden administration may rescind a Trump-era immigration program that forces certain asylum seekers to await approval in Mexico. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said an immigration law gave the president discretion to return migrants arriving by land to the country from which they came. But that discretion, he said, did not amount to an obligation.