This timeline addresses milestones in immigration and government policies.
The first major federal law specifically addressing immigration is enacted. The Immigration Act includes establishment of reporting on immigration to the United States.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the interest of unity among the allies in World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”