Immigration is a fact of American life deeply embedded in the nation’s history, politics, economics, and culture. In some respect, immigration policy has paralleled the difficult task of addressing the legacy of slavery in modern American life and the challenges of creating space for Indigenous people whose traditional lands were taken during a period of often-violent expansion. However, whereas the law has moved steadily toward greater respect for the rights of Black and Indigenous people, it remains more indifferent to the place of immigrants in our society, subject as it is to a fungible set of goals based on economic need, political objectives, humanitarian impulses, and strategic opportunity.

The United States has long been considered a nation of immigrants, with a larger foreign-born population than any other country in the world. Immigration policies determine which people and how many can legally immigrate to the US, and by what processes they are able to enter the country. They also determine the rights and restrictions immigrants face as they integrate into American society.

Closely related to immigration issues are naturalization policies which dictate how immigrants can claim the full rights of US citizenship. Laws regarding immigration and citizenship affect many areas of national importance, including voter eligibility, labor competition, national security, international relations, economic development, availability of resources, and the character of U.S. society. At the same time, these areas influence the making of our laws and policies.

As a nation, we have struggled to balance these competing priorities in the making of immigration policy. Immigrants and their inclusion in American life have been vital to the nation’s economic growth, yet the question of who we let in has at times served as a politically divisive issue used in policy negotiations and election campaigns. Unlike both Black and Indigenous groups, who were long a part of the fabric of the nation, the introduction of new immigrant populations has consistently met with resistance from more established immigrant groups who feared competition for jobs and political power, and who sometimes assumed a nativist view of their US identity. This has been true since passage of the first naturalization act in 1790, and it has never been more so than in recent years, as the immigrant population is on track to turn the country’s White majority into a minority.

“A nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and offering asylum to anyone suffering from persecution is a beacon to the world. This is America at its best ….”

–– Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation

The arrival of new immigrants is often accompanied by the fear that they will take jobs and resources away from those already living and working here while also driving down wages. Fear of labor competition, though generally but not always unfounded, is typically followed by backlash against immigrants which fuels more restrictive policy. This was the case for laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. While these laws were promoted as addressing economic concerns, their design was motivated by racist and xenophobic sentiment.

On the other hand, labor shortages usually lead to a more welcoming immigration policy. The Bracero Program of 1942, the Immigration Act of 1990, and the exemption of foreign-born agricultural workers from COVID-related immigration restrictions illustrate the malleability of immigration policy in support of the country’s economic growth. Likewise, the nation’s leadership in advocating for human rights around the world during the second half of the 20th century put pressure on lawmakers to enact more humanitarian immigration policies at home, as reflected in the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, and the Refugee Act of 1980.

Even before the country emerged as a global leader after World War II, the US presence on the world stage meant that entanglements with other nations would complicate immigration policy. The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 limited Japanese immigration so as to maintain good relations with Japan as a counter to Russian expansion. The Magnuson Act of 1943 reopened the door for Chinese immigration after China became an official ally of the US during World War II. And the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act created a pathway to permanent residency status for Cubans who fled communist Cuba. Passage of these and other laws reflect the influence of international relations and global scrutiny on American immigration policy.

Today, US immigration policy reflects a mix of all these influences: humanitarianism, economic need, real and imagined national security and employment concerns, racism, nationalism, and political opportunism. The timeline that follows is broken into five distinct turning points that illustrate how the ebb and flow of immigration and shifting priorities have influenced the evolution of US immigration policy.

Hypocrisy and the Nazis

It is worth noting that historian Jill Lepore, after writing the statement quoted above, immediately clarified that “a nation founded on ideals, [and] universal truths, also opens itself to charges of hypocrisy at every turn.” Lepore’s clarification aptly describes circumstances in the United States. Historian James Q. Whitman made that quite clear in his examination of Nazi records, where he found references by Hitler and others to American race and immigration law as a model for Nazi Germany. While the aspirations expressed in the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus”, and our concept of the melting pot may have contributed to a more humanitarian perspective on immigration, real and imagined fears have kept the nation from establishing a constant set of immigration policies designed to foster the integration and acceptance of immigrants into our communities.

Immigration Law Timeline

Anti-immigrant cartoon - early 1850s

The immigration issue demanded attention immediately following the country’s formal establishment under the Constitution. With a first wave of immigrants coming largely from the British Isles, Congress was intent on establishing a national identity and ensuring that all immigrants would be loyal to the Constitution and not the Crown. Congress also wanted to distinguish between which foreign-born individuals would have a path to citizenship, and the Black slave population which would remain ineligible.

Later in the nation’s first decade, during the presidency of John Adams, war in France and the emergence of strongly partisan political divisions led to limits on immigration out of fears of another war. Additionally, an increase in the time needed for immigrants to become citizens was motivated by a desire to limit the number of immigrant votes for opposition candidates.

Following the War of 1812, a second wave of immigrants began to arrive on our shores.

Second Immigration Wave

Demographic: Northern and Western Europe (primarily Irish and German immigrants), and Asian Countries (primarily Chinese)

Push/Pull Factors: Poverty and famine in Ireland. Economic opportunities and religious / political freedom in the US

After the War of 1812 ended and peace was reestablished between the US and Britain, immigration from Northern and Western Europe increased significantly. The industrial revolution had begun to impact agricultural communities, leaving many jobless and with few opportunities in their native lands. The largest group of immigrants (5 million) came from Germany, pulled to the US by its abundance of land and promises of religious and political freedom. Approximately 2.8 million immigrants arrived from Ireland, which experienced severe famine in the mid-19th century. These Irish Catholic immigrants initiated one of the first significant demographic shifts since American independence, and generated anti-Catholic sentiment as the American identity began to change.

In the early 1850s, thousands of Chinese people immigrated to the US to escape poor conditions in China, and like so many Americans, they were attracted by the California gold rush. While these new arrivals found employment, they experienced substantial backlash for being willing to work for below-market wages and taking jobs from Americans, and for introducing different physical and cultural characteristics into American life.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed free White males of “good moral character” to become citizens after living in the United States for at least two years. Indentured servants, slaves, and women were not eligible for citizenship.
  • The Naturalization Act of 1798

    The Naturalization Act of 1798 lengthened the residency requirement for citizenship to 14 years.
  • The Steerage Act of 1819

    The Steerage Act aimed to help ease the ocean passage for immigrants and organized the first collection of immigrant demographics.
  • The Know Nothing Party

    The Know Nothing Party was America’s first anti-immigrant political party. Its conception was a result of backlash to the wave of Irish Catholic and German immigrants.
  • The Immigration Act of 1864

    This law was created to address Civil War-related labor shortages and to encourage economic development by legalizing dubious labor recruitment practices that resembled indentured servitude.

Puck cartoon - Chinese Exclusion Act

Following the Civil War, in 1868, the states ratified the 14th Amendment, which enshrined citizenship in the Constitution for freed black slaves born in the US, but did not extend the possibility of naturalized citizenship to those who had come from Africa. This was addressed in the Naturalization Act of 1870, but the careful wording only extended a path to citizenship to immigrants of Black men of African origins. Asian immigrants, in particular, were not included.

Immigration had dropped substantially during the Civil War. As large-scale immigration slowly resumed after the war, several states that had become hostile to  immigrant populations began to make their own immigration policies that were designed to discourage immigration. These policies were challenged in court, and in one case in 1876, Chy Lung v. Freeman, the Supreme Court ruled that the power to make immigration policy belonged solely to the federal government. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first legislation in a series of federal responses that codified anti-immigrant sentiment.

Third Immigration Wave

Demographic: Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe (Italy, Poland). Over 20 million immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1920. Many of these immigrants were Catholic or Jewish.

Push/Pull Factors: Loss of agricultural land, loss of markets for artisans, crowded cities, rising taxes, and political and religious repression/ economic opportunities and freedom from persecution.

By 1890, the US had begun to experience a third major wave of immigration that lasted until world war broke out. During this time, over 20 million immigrants, mostly from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, came to the US. By 1920, the US had received over 4 million Italian immigrants, about half of whom returned to Italy after about 5 years, and over 2 million Jews from across Eastern Europe who were fleeing religious persecution.

In response to this influx, Congress passed new legislation designed to restore earlier immigration patterns – in other words, to foster a more White population of Anglo-Saxon descent. The new laws capped total annual immigration and imposed numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored Northern and Western European countries. Passage of such laws reflected the era’s xenophobic sentiment, economic fears, and emergent appeal of eugenics.

During this same period, however, the roots of an idealized version of immigration took hold. One of the first expressions of this attitude, a poem penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, includes the now famous  lines that were inscribed on the base of the pedestal in 1903:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Several years later, in 1908, a play entitled “The Melting Pot” opened in Washington, DC. Written by an immigrant from England, it reflected the playwright’s vision of an America that forged a new American identity from the disparate peoples who came to its shores. The play was a success, enjoyed by President Roosevelt and others, and left its mark on our culture as the term “melting pot” became part of the common language to describe the American identity.

As with many national myths,  Lazarus’ poem and the “melting pot” possessed sufficient elements of truth to survive, but the reality was less rosy, as the country faced challenges in absorbing so many millions of immigrants in so short a time.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1870

    This law extended the right of citizenship to those of African origin. However, naturalization and citizenship rights were still denied to Asian and other non-White immigrants.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act

    This law suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and made all Chinese immigrants, including scholars and those from other social classes, ineligible for naturalization; this marked the first time immigration in the US was explicitly restricted on the basis of race.
  • Immigration Act of 1891 

    This law added immigration restrictions for new groups of people and established the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration under the US Treasury Department. The goal was to expand immigration rules and inspection, as well as to centralize immigration enforcement under the federal government.
  • The Geary Act and the Opening of Ellis Island

    The Geary Act strengthened the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by extending for another ten years the ban on Chinese immigrants becoming citizens. 1892 also marked the opening of Ellis Island, which became the country’s primary immigration station. It processed 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.
  • The Immigration Act of 1907 and the Gentleman’s Agreement 

    The Immigration Act of 1907 expanded restrictions on Asian immigration and created the Dillingham Commision to investigate immigration-related problems and their impact on the nation. The “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the US and Japan ended the immigration of Japanese workers.
  • The Immigration Act of 1917 (The Asiatic Barred Zone Act)

    This law implemented a literacy test intended to reduce European immigration. It also restricted immigration of people from most Asian countries as well as that of homosexuals, criminals, alcoholics, and other categories of “undesirable aliens”.
  • Ozawa v. US (1922) and Thind v. US (1923)

    In these two cases, the Supreme Court ruled that race could be used to deny citizenship, in accordance with the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1870.
  • The National Origins Act (Johnson – Reeds Act) and the Establishment of US Border Patrol

    The National Origins Act lowered the number of allowable immigrants, making the quota system even more restrictive. In a related move, Congress also established the US Border Patrol to limit illegal crossings on the borders with Mexico and Canada.
  • Section 1325 Improper entry by alien

    For the first time in US history, this act made crossing the southern border from Mexico into the country a crime.

Migrant Laborers

Immigration plummeted from a peak of 14.2 million newcomers in 1930 to 9.7 million in 1960, a drop of 32%. This decrease was a result of the restrictive policies put in place during the previous decades, the global depression, and the Second World War. As a share of the total US population, the number of immigrants fell from 11.6% to 5.4%.

The lack of immigrant labor, combined with the thousands of American men going off to fight in Europe and the Pacific, led to worker shortages that compelled the federal government to establish a temporary worker program with Mexico. At the same time, war-time alliances required a reconsideration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Following WWII, immigration policies reflected a more humanitarian approach that was influenced by the Cold War and the nation’s emergence as a global superpower.

On the flip side of this more inclusive pragmatism, the internment of Japanese Americans in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor reflected the challenges of fully integrating Asian-Americans into our communities amidst war-time paranoia and persistent racism.

  • Executive Order 9066 (Japanese Internment)

    The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to concerns that there were spies among the Japanese communities in the West and inflamed long-standing racism towards Japanese Americans. President Roosevelt issued an executive order for the  internment of Japanese Americans to prevent espionage on the home front.
  • The Bracero Program

    Created by the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, the Bracero Program established a guest-worker program with Mexico that allowed Mexican farm laborers into the US for temporary work. The program initially addressed the shortage of American farm workers during World War II.
  • The Magnuson Act

    Formally known as the Immigration Act of 1943, this law repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, allowing Chinese immigration and naturalization to resume.
  • The Displaced Persons Act

    The Displaced Persons Act was a temporary law allowing the entry of 400,000 people who were displaced by World War II. This was the first time Congress articulated a federal refugee policy. The strong post-war economy in the US through the 1950s helped facilitate the entry of European displaced persons into American society.
  • Operation Wetback

    In the wake of post-World War II concerns about jobs for soldiers and uncontrolled migration across the southern border, the Immigration Bureau and Border Patrol used military-style tactics to roundup and remove large numbers of Mexican immigrants from the US.

South China Sea....Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft.

The 1960s saw a wave of immigration reform worldwide, as numerous countries sought to lessen discrimination by implementing inclusive legislation through the United Nations and other international regulatory channels. These international practices spotlighted and exerted pressure on the United States, whose nationalistic immigration system, and particularly the Immigration Act of 1924, was so widely regarded as discriminatory that even Nazi Germany had praised it as a model for institutionalized racism. The Civil Rights Movement provided domestic pressure to reform restrictive immigration laws.

As a result, a new system favoring family reunification and skilled immigrants replaced national origin quotas in 1965. While still placing annual restrictions on the number of immigrant visas that could be issued, this new system was considered a more fair, merit-based approach that better reflected American values.

Fourth Immigration Wave

Demographics: Immigrants came from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The nation’s foreign-born population grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to a record 45 million in 2015. This was accompanied by a steady rise of unauthorized immigrants.

Push/Pull Factors: Difficult socioeconomic and/or security conditions exacerbated by natural disasters, poor governance, and Cold War proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam;  economic opportunities and asylum in the US; abolishment of nationality quotas, prioritizing family reunification and skilled immigrants.

Policy changes codified in 1965’s Hart-Celler Act ushered in a fourth wave of immigration that  has proven to be the largest sustained influx of immigrants, both authorized and undocumented, in the nation’s history. The Population Reference Bureau reports that in the 1960s, the US received an average of about 330,000 immigrants a year; for more than 20 years beginning in the 1990s, annual immigration exceeded 1 million migrants. From 1965 to 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, more than half of US population growth – about 55% – was due to the immigration of 72 million people.

This new wave of immigrants has been dominated by people from Asia and Latin America. Data reported by the Migration Policy Institute shows that almost 75% of the immigrant population in 1960 came from Europe. By 2018, Europeans made up just under 11% of the immigrant population while 52% came from Latin America and 31% from Asia.

The 1965 legislation had several unintended consequences, chief among them was the unprecedented rise in unauthorized, or illegal, immigration. The most-cited and most recent estimates put the number of unauthorized immigrants at 23% of the total immigrant population, or about 10.5 million people. The number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled between 1990 and 2007, from 3.5 million to 12.2 million people, before dropping to the current level.

Most of these unauthorized immigrants entered the country through the southern border, with the single largest group coming from Mexico. Over the last decade, however, the number coming from Mexico has fallen, accounting for some of the drop in the unauthorized immigrant population. Immigration from Central America has increased during this period. cites data from the Department of Homeland Security that almost 80% of unauthorized  immigrants have resided in the US for more than 10 years.

As a consequence, US immigration policy over the last few decades has aspired to put into practice the humanitarian ideals expressed by the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal while struggling with how to cope with the great numbers of unauthorized immigrants.

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (The Hart-Celler Act)

    During the Civil Rights Movement, the national origins formula was increasingly attacked by immigrants for being racially discriminatory. Congress responded by passing the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished the nationality quotas, thus removing de facto discrimination against Asians and Eastern and Southern Europeans.
  • Cuban Adjustment Act

    The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act created a pathway to permanent residency status for Cubans who fled communist Cuba.
  • The Refugee Act

    The Refugee Act amended previous immigration legislation to create a standardized system for processing refugees.
  • The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

    Immigration enforcement increased significantly with passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which increased border security measures and, for the first time, instituted penalties for companies that employed unauthorized immigrants.
  • The Immigration Act of 1990

    The Immigration Act of 1990 was the first significant revision to US immigration policy since 1965. It emphasized admissions for skilled workers via the H-1B visa program, encouraged immigration from underrepresented countries, and increased the annual immigration cap, resulting in an unprecedented increase in the immigrant population.
  • The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)

    The IIRIRA made it easier for immigrants to be deported while the PRWORA made many immigrants ineligible for certain public benefits. Passage of these acts reflected mounting concern about the public costs of illegal immigration and the social and economic effects of immigration in general.
  • The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act and the Homeland Security Act 

    Congress responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack by passing legislation designed to increase the security of the nation’s borders, which produced enhanced requirements for foreign-born individuals entering the country.
  • The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) 

    President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which was designed to remove immigration enforcement attention from low priority individuals with good behavior.
  • Obama Era Deportations

    Although the Obama administration advocated for programs such as DACA and DAPA, it also broke deportation records, with over 400,000 forced removals of noncitizens in 2012 alone. During Obama’s eight years in office, nearly 3 million people were involuntarily deported.

Wall under construction in Arizona

Donald Trump made immigration crisis and reform the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, appealing to the racist and nativist sentiments prevalent in communities throughout the US. Candidate Trump blamed many of the nation’s ills on immigrants, a narrative that resonated with many White, working-class voters struggling with unemployment and stagnant wages. An analysis of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, revealed a linkage between the economic concerns of these voters and their fears of cultural displacement and loss of status.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised sharp cuts to legal immigration, the construction of a wall across the entire US-Mexico border, and extreme vetting of all applicants for admission. Although the courts and Congress stalled and diminished some of the president’s ambitions, the Trump administration nonetheless persisted with a number of significant changes to the country’s immigration policies, even when those changes were unpopular with a majority of Americans.

Trump often confounded critics who failed to understand why he pursued policies that poll poorly in the general population, like ending DACA and separating families at the southern border. These critics seemed to ignore what may be a unifying feature among his many immigration initiatives: stopping the growth of the immigrant population and reducing the number of foreign-born people living in the US.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center estimated that by 2065, the non-Hispanic White population will fall to 46% of the total US population, a trend often cited as stoking the fears of Trump supporters. More recently, Stephen Miller, the person running point on President Trump’s immigration policies, was outed as a White supremacist by a former colleague and was profiled in a book that examines how he came to his extreme views.

Writing for FiveThirtyEight in 2018, Perry Bacon Jr. explored the question, “What is Really Behind Trump’s Controversial Immigration Policies?” and concluded that the goal of stopping the growth of the foreign-born population more clearly explains Trump’s policies than claims of enhancing national security or reducing crime. Bacon did not address the fears of job competition that, justifiably or not, have often driven the arguments against more open immigration policies. He also declined to state directly that the Trump policies are racist, although he acknowledges that they are tied to concerns about our national identity, and he noted that most immigrants today are (and will be in the future) from Asia and Latin America.

Peniel Ibe, writing in April 2020 for the American Friends Service Committee website, was more willing to go a step further. Noting that Trump’s policies “support a [W]hite nationalist agenda”, she identified a lengthy list of actions taken by the administration to support her claim. She also included a slightly shorter list of the administration’s pending or proposed actions. Taken as a whole, and not examined individually, it does appear that the Trump administration was intent on severely limiting immigration, something Stephen Miller acknowledged, and reducing the foreign-born population.

Since immigration policy has largely rested with the executive branch since the 1876 Supreme Court decision in Chy Lung v. Freeman, it was relatively easy for the Trump administration to exert its will. The Migration Policy Institute catalogued more than 400 executive actions, including executive orders, by the Trump administration during its first three-and-a-half years that targeted immigration. The following timeline includes just a sampling of the executive orders (EOs) and presidential proclamations issued.

  • Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements

    President Trump’s first immigration-related executive order expanded the geographic reach of the expedited removal program and increased the timeframe in which asylum seekers were vulnerable to detention and deportation without a formal hearing. The order also increased construction of detention facilities and initiated planning for the construction of a 2000-mile border wall and the hiring of 5,000 new border patrol agents.

  • Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the US

    Although the stated purpose of this EO was to promote greater security for the nation, the EO delivered on a campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration by suspending travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Also known as the Muslim Travel Ban, it caused immediate chaos at US airports and incited anger among a large number of US allies and a wide array of organizations, including academic institutions, airlines, and technology companies. It took three versions of the order before it was upheld by the Supreme Court.

  • Buy American and Hire American (BAHA)

    The BAHA EO, promoted as an effort to “create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests” instead proved to be a mechanism to limit entry to the country by H-1B visas and green cards, according to Angelo Paparello, an attorney with almost 40 years’ experience in immigration law.

  • Zero-Tolerance Policy and Family Separations

    The Trump administration implemented the zero tolerance policy to deter future unauthorized border crossings, as increasing numbers of families were apprehended at the southern border: from just over 11,000 in 2011 to almost 100,000 in the first four months of the 2019 fiscal year. The policy required criminal prosecution for illegal entry of those who crossed the US – Mexico border without authorization. Guidelines established over the previous two decades, starting with the Flores Settlement Agreement of 1997, determined how the children of detained adults had to be treated. Under these guidelines, children could not be detained in family immigration detention centers for more than 20 days. The zero tolerance policy, which led to longer-term detention of immigrant adults, resulted in the family separations widely reported in the media. The policy was formally brought to an end in June 2018 after facing national and international criticism.

    The Congressional Research Service reported that thousands of children were separated from their families before and after the policy was announced. Several organizations have reported that family separations continued after the Trump administration claimed to have ended the policy.

  • Executive Order 13802

    This EO deleted a section of an Obama EO that required the DHS and State Department to interview at least 80% of nonimmigrant visa applicants within three weeks of receiving their application. This change allows officials to slow the processing of visa applications.

  • Record Low Refugee Limit

    After capping the number of refugees permitted entry into the country in 2019 to 30,000, the Trump administration further limited refugee admissions to 18,000, the lowest cap since the refugee resettlement program began in 1980. Refugee admissions into the US have declined substantially during Trump’s presidency while the number of refugees worldwide has reached its highest level since World War II.

  • Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Will Financially Burden the United States Healthcare System

    Presidential Proclamation 9945 requires that applicants for immigrant visas must demonstrate that they will be covered by health insurance or be financially well-off enough to afford likely healthcare costs. Applies only to holders of immigrant visas issued on or after the date that this proclamation went into effect: November 3, 2019.

  • A Fourth Travel Ban

    Presidential Proclamation 9983, Improving Enhanced Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats, was a new travel ban that placed visa and entry restrictions on travelers from six countries: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania. This proclamation had little impact on many types of immigrants, but it did limit “follow on” immigration – that is, the immigration of family members related to an immigrant who has become a legal permanent resident or a citizen.

  • Impact of COVID-19 on Immigration Policy

    Through a series of executive orders and presidential proclamations from January 31 through August 2020, the Trump administration sharply limited immigration and immigration services, including enforcement, as the US struggled to contain the coronavirus. The combined impact on immigrants and their families has been severe. According to the American Immigration Council, tens of thousands of immigrants remain stuck in over-crowded jails, prisons, and detention centers as the courts that were to hear their cases either suspended activities or limited them because of the pandemic. At the same time, legislative COVID relief passed by Congress ignored the plight of millions of immigrant families who were facing an uncertain economic future.



The URLs included with the sources below were good links when we published. However, as third party websites are updated over time, some links may be broken. We do not update these broken links. If you are interested in the source, it may be possible to find it by copying and pasting the URL into a search on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. From the search results, be sure to choose a date from around the time our article was published.

National Archives, “Major United States Laws Relating to Immigration and Naturalization: 1790–2005”, November 2014,, accessed Jul 3, 2020.


Jill Lepore, “This America: The Case for the Nation”, p. 46, Liveright, 2019, Kindle Edition

James Q. Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”, Princeton UP, 2017, Kindle Edition

Push for National Identity, Votes, Westward Expansion

Philip Martin, “Trends in Migration to the U.S.”, Population Reference Bureau, May 19, 2014,,States%20had%2075%20million%20residents.&text=Immigration%20rose%20after%20World%20War,European%20spouses%20and%20Europeans%20migrated, accessed Sep 22, 2020, “US Immigration Before 1965”,, Oct 29, 2009,, accessed Jul 3 2020

Shiho Imai, “Naturalization Act of 1790”, Densho Encyclopedia, accessed Jan 16 2020

Rudolph J. Vecoli, “The Significance of Immigration in the Formation of an American Identity”, The History Teacher, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, pp. 9–27, JSTOR,, accessed Jul 3, 2020, “Alien and Sedition Acts”, Nov 9, 2009,, accessed Jul 3, 2020

William J. Watkins, “Reclaiming the American Revolution: the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy”, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Know-Nothing Party”, May 2020,, accessed Jul 3, 2020

Lorraine Boissoneault, “How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics”, Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 26, 2017,, accessed Jul 3, 2020

Immigration History, “Immigration Act of 1864”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society,, accessed Jan 17, 2020

American Emigrant Company, “Considerations in favor of the accompanying proposed amendments to the Act entitled an Act to encourage Immigration”, Widener Library, Open Collections Program at Harvard University,, accessed Sep 29, 2020

“Act to Encourage Immigration”, St. James Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide: Major Events in Labor History and Their Impact,, Jan 16, 2020,, accessed Jul 3 2020

“Naturalization Act of 1870”, Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources,, updated Jun 29, 2020,, accessed Jul 3 2020

Hostility and Myth Building

Wikipedia, “Chy Lung v. Freeman”,, accessed Sep 22, 2020

USCIS, “Early American Immigration Policies”, Dec 4, 2019,,began%20to%20pass%20immigration%20legislation., accessed Jul 3 2020

Philip Martin, “Trends in Migration to the US”, Population Reference Bureau, May 19, 2014,,States%20had%2075%20million%20residents.&text=Immigration%20rose%20after%20World%20War,European%20spouses%20and%20Europeans%20migrated., accessed Jul 3 2020

Library of Congress, “Immigration to the United States, 1851 -1900”,, accessed Sep 30, 2020

Global Boston, “Second Wave Immigration, 1880 – 1921”, Boston College,, accessed Sep 30, 2020

Library of Congress, “Immigrants in the Progressive Era”,, accessed Sep 25, 2020

Marian L. Smith, “INS Administration of Racial Provisions in U.S. Immigration and Nationality Law Since 1898”, Prologue Magazine/National Archives, Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2,, accessed Dec 17, 2020

Immigration History, “Chinese Exclusion Act Aka ‘An Act to Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to Chinese’”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society,, accessed Jan 17, 2020

Library of Congress, “Searching for the Gold Mountain”,,%2C%20or%20%22gold%20mountain%22., accessed Jul 3 2020

Office of the Historian, “Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts”, US Department of State,, accessed Jul 3 2020

USCIS, “Origins of the Federal Immigration Service”,, accessed Jul 3, 2020, “Ellis Island”, Oct 27, 2009,, accessed Jul 3, 2020

Wikipedia, “Geary Act”,, accessed Sep 25, 2020

Immigration History, “Geary Act (1892)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society,, accessed Jul 3, 2020, “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)”,, accessed Dec 18, 2020

Kerry Abrams, “Polygamy, Prostitution, and the Federalization of Immigration Law”, Columbia Law Review 105, no. 3 (April 2005): 641–716

James S. Pula, “American Immigration Policy and the Dillingham Commission”, Polish American Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 1980, pp. 5–31, JSTOR,, accessed Jul 4, 2020, “Gentlemen’s Agreement”, Oct 29, 2009,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Cherstin Lyon,  “Immigration Act of 1917”, Densho Encyclopedia, Jul 17, 2015,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Immigration Act of 1917 (Barred Zone Act)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society, Jan 1, 1970,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Brenda Barrientes, “1921 Emergency Quota Law (An Act to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States)”, US Immigration Legislation: 1921 Emergency Quota Law,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Claudia Goldin, “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890-1921”, National Bureau of Economic Research, April 1993,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Emergency Quota Law (1921)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society, Jan 1, 1970., accessed Jul 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society, Jan 1, 1970,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Border Patrol History”, Oct 5, 2018,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924”, The Journal of American History, vol. 86, no. 1, 1999, pp. 67-92,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Library of Congress, “United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind”,, accessed Nov 8, 2020

Shiho Imai, “Ozawa v. United States”, Densho Encyclopedia, April 16, 2014,, accessed Nov 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Ozawa v. United States (1922)”,, accessed Nov 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Thind v. United States (1923)”,, accessed Nov 8, 2020

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “1891: Immigration Inspection Expands”, Mar 21, 2014,, accessed Nov 12, 2020

National Park Service, “Closing the Door on Immigration”,, accessed Nov 12, 2020

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, “How crossing the US-Mexico border became a crime”, The Conversation, Apr 30, 2017,, accessed Nov 12, 2020

Depression, War Ease Restrictions

Migration Policy Institute, “US Immigrant Population and Share over Time, 1850-Present”,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Post-War Years”, History Office and Library,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Barbara A. Driscoll, The Tracks North: The Railroad Bracero Program of World War II, CMAS Books/Center for Mexican American Studies, the University of Texas at Austin, 1999,,contains,bracero%20program, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Natalia Molina, “Borders, Laborers, and Racialized Medicalization Mexican Immigration and US Public Health Practices in the 20th Century”, Am J Public Health, 2011 June; 101(6): 1024–1031,, accessed Dec 18, 2020

Bracero History Archive,, accessed Dec 18, 2020, “US and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement”, Oct 7, 2019,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Office of the Historian, “Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1943”, US Department of State,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Immigration History, “Real of Chinese Exclusion (1943)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Refugee Timeline”,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

John Boyd, “Displaced Persons Act of 1948”, Immigration to the United States,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Deborah Ankar, “US Immigration and Asylum Policy: A Brief Historical Perspective.” In Defense of the Alien, vol. 13, 1990, pp. 74–85. JSTOR,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Office of the Historian, “The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)”, US Department of State,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Anna O’Leary, Undocumented Immigrants in the United States: An Encyclopedia of Their Experience , Greenwood, 2014, pp. 372-374, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Brent Funderburk, “Operation Wetback”, Encyclopædia Britannica,  Sep 4, 2017,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Erin Blakemore, “The Largest Mass Deportation in American History”,, Jun 18, 2019,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

History, Art & Archives, US House of Representatives, “Depression, War, and Civil Rights”,, accessed Jul 4, 2020, “Japanese Internment Camps”, Oct 29, 2009,, accessed Nov 4, 2020, “FDR orders Japanese Americans into internment camps”, Nov 16, 2009,, accessed Nov 4, 2020

Encyclopædia Britannica, “Japanese American Internment”, Apr 14, 2020,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Kevin P. Duffus, “U-Boats off the Outer Banks”, NCpedia, 2008,, accessed Nov 8, 2020

Jonathan Yardley, “When Nazis prowled the U.S. coast”, Washington Post, Apr 25, 2014,, accessed Nov 8, 2020

“Facts and Case Summary – Korematsu v. U.S.”, United States Courts,, accessed Nov 7, 2020, “Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942)”,, accessed Nov 8, 2020

Natalie Walker, “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948”, Truman Library Institute, Apr 29, 2019,, accessed Nov 12, 2020

Global Responsibilities Expand Entry

James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, p. 12, Princeton UP, 2017, Kindle Edition, “U.S. Immigraton Since 1965”, Jun 7, 2019,, accessed Sep 26, 2020

Pew Research Center, “Chapter 5: US Foreign Born Population Trends”, Sep 28, 2015,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Pew Research Center, “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to US, Driving Population Growth and Change through 2065”, Sep 28, 2015,,1965%20to%2018%25%20in%202015, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Abby Budiman, “Key findings about U.S. immigrants”, Pew Research Center, Aug 20, 2020,, accessed Sep 27, 2020

Lori Robertson, “Illegal Immigration Statistics”,, Jun 7, 2019,, accessed Sep 27, 2020

Congressional Research Service, “Central American Migration: Root Causes and US Policy”, Jun 13, 2019,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Emma Newburger, Tucker Higgins, “Secretive cabals, fear of immigrants and the tea party: How the financial crisis led to the rise of Donald Trump”, CNBC, September 11, 2018,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump”, PRRI / The Atlantic, May 9, 2017,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Sarah Pierce, Andrew Selee, “Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year since the Election”, Migration Policy Institute, Dec 2017,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Alex Nowrasteh, “President Trump’s Lasting Immigration Legacy”, Cato Institute, Nov 9, 2020,, accessed Dec 29, 2020

T.J. Hatton, “United States Immigration Policy: The 1965 Act and its Consequences”, Scand. J. of Economics, 2015, 117: 347-368. doi:10.1111/sjoe.12094, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Jeanne Batalova, Brittany Blizzard, Jessica Bolter, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States”, Migration Policy Institute, Feb 14, 2020,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Faye Hipsman, Isabel Ball, “Fifty Years On, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Continues to Reshape the United States”, Migration Policy Institute, Oct 15, 2015,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Transcript, “January 8, 1964: State of the Union”, UVA Miller Center,, accessed Oct 1, 2020

Jerry Kammer, “The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965”, Center for Immigration Studies, Sep 30, 2015,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Deborah E. Anker & Michael H. Posner, “The Forty Year Crisis: A Legislative History of the Refugee Act of 1980”, San Diego Law Review vol. 19 (1981),, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

National Archives Foundation, “Refugee Act of 1980”,, accessed Jul, 7 2020

Doris Meissner et al, “Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery”, Migration Policy Institute, Jan 2013,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Doris Meissner, Claire Bergeron, “At Its 25th Anniversary, IRCA’s Legacy Lives On”, Migration Policy Institute, Nov 16, 2011,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Charles Kamasaki, “IRCA in Retrospect: Guide Posts for Today’s Immigration Reform”, Migration Policy Institute, Jan 2014,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Immigration History, “Immigration Act of 1990”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society., accessed Jul 7, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Stephen Yale-Loehr, “The Immigration Act of 1990: Unfinished Business a Quarter-Century Later”, Migration Policy Institute, Jul 2016,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Audrey Singer, “Welfare Reforms and Immigrants”, Brookings Institute, Feb 2, 2004,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Ballotpedia, “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Kate M. Manuel, “Unauthorized Aliens, Higher Education, InState Tuition, and Financial Aid: Legal Analysis”, Congressional Research Service, Jan 11, 2016,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Ballotpedia, “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Ballotpedia, “Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Immigration History, “Homeland Security Act (2002)”, Immigration and Ethnic History Society., accessed Jul 7, 2020

Tom Murse, “Department of Homeland Security History”, ThoughtCo., Oct 23, 2019,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

American Immigration Council, “The Dream Act, DACA, and Other Policies Designed to Protect Dreamers”, Aug, 2019,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Sarah Pierce, Jessica Bolter, “The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not?”, Migration Policy Institute, Jan 26, 2017,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Alicia A. Caldwell, Louise Radnofsky, “Why Trump Has Deported Fewer Immigrants than Obama”, Wall Street Journal, Aug 3, 2019,, accessed Jul 7 2020

Sara Rimer, “Has Door From Cuba Been Held Open?”, The Brink/Boston University, Aug 26, 2015,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Green Card for a Cuban Native or Citizen”,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Immigration History, “Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966”,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Ilisa Mira, “Seven Things You Should Know About Cuban Adjustment”, CLINIC, Sep 27, 2016,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Brittany Blizzard and Jeanne Batalova, “Cuban Immigrants in the United States”, Migration Policy Institute, Jun 11, 2020,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Jorge Duany, “Cuban Migration: A Postrevolution Exodus Ebbs and Flows”, Migration Policy Institute, Jul 6, 2017,, accessed Nov 7, 2020

Immigration History, “Deferred Action for Parents of U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and DACA Program Expanded”,, accessed Nov 11, 2020

American Immigration Council, “Temporary Protected Status: An Overview”, Feb 2, 2020,, accessed Dec 8, 2020

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol”, Sep 2011,, accessed Dec 8, 2020

White Identity, Nativism Color Immigration Actions

Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump”, PRRI / The Atlantic, May 9, 2017,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Sarah Pierce, Andrew Selee, “Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year since the Election”, Migration Policy Institute, December 2017,, downloaded Jul 7, 2020

Pew Research Center, “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to US, Driving Population Growth and Change through 2065”, Sep 28, 2015,,1965%20to%2018%25%20in%202015, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Sarah Sidner, Rachel Clarke, “Former Breitbart Editor: Stephen Miller is a white supremacist. I know, I was one too.”, CNN, Dec 16, 2019,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Perry Bacon Jr., “What is Really Behind Trump’s Controversial Immigration Policies?”, FiveThirtyEight, Jun 19, 2018,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Peniel Ibe, “Trump’s attacks on the legal immigration system explained”, American Friends Service Committee, Apr 23, 2020,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Emma Newburger, Tucker Higgins, “Secretive cabals, fear of immigrants and the tea party: How the financial crisis led to the rise of Donald Trump”, CNBC, Sep 11, 2018,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Sarah Pierce, Jessica Bolter, “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency”, Migration Policy Institute, Jul 2020,, accessed Dec 8, 2020

Anthony L. Fisher, “’Hatemonger’ author Jean Guerrero on Stephen Miller, white nationalism, and performative cruelty”, Business Insider, Apr 10, 2020,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Andrea González-Ramírez, “The White Nationalist Education of Stephen Miller”, GEN, Aug 7, 2020,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

American Immigration Council, “A Primer on Expedited Removal”, Jul 22, 2019,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Center for Migration Studies, “President Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration and Refugees”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Muzaffar Chishti, Sarah Pierce, and Laura Plata, “In Upholding Travel Ban, Supreme Court Endorses Presidential Authority While Leaving Door Open for Future Challenges”, Migration Policy Institute, Jun 29, 2018,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Andrew S. Pyle, Darren L. Linvill, S. Paul Gennett, “From silence to condemnation: Institutional responses to “travel ban” Executive Order 13769”, Public Relations Review, vol 44, no. 2, 2018, pp. 214-223,, accessed Jul 4, 2020

Angelo Paparello, “Revanchist Immigration: The Aftermath of “Buy American, Hire American”, Seyfarth | BIG Immigration Blog, Jan 4, 2018,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Sarah Pierce, Jessica Bolter, Andrew Selee, “US Immigration Policy Under Trump: Deep Changes and Lasting Impacts”, Transatlantic Council on Migration, 2018,, downloaded Jul 6, 2020

Elijah E. Cummings, “Child Separations by the Trump Administration”, Committee on Oversight and Reform, Jul 2019,, downloaded Jul 6, 2020

Liz Vinson, “Family separation policy continues two years after Trump administration claims it ended”, Southern Poverty Law Center, Jun 18, 2020,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

NAFSA, “Immigration Executive Actions Under the Trump Administration”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Jens M. Krogstad, “Key facts about refugees to the US”, Pew Research Center, Oct 7, 2019,, accessed Jul 6, 2020

Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Number of People Fleeing Conflict is Highest Since World War II, U.N. Says”, New York Times, Jun 19, 2019,, accessed Jul 7, 2020

Justice for Immigrants, “Questions and Answers Concerning Proclamation 9983”,, accessed Sep 28, 2020

Jorge Loweree, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, Walter Ewing, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Noncitizens and Across the U.S. Immigration System”, American Immigration Council, May 27, 2020,, accessed Sep 28, 2020


Related Problems: Immigration, Income & Wealth Inequality

Authors: George Linzer, Sophia Guan
Reviewed: Adina Langer of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education
Published: December 29, 2020

Feature image: Liberty Island photo D Ramey Logan.jpg from Wikimedia Commons by D Ramey Logan, CC-BY 4.0

Please support our work

We are committed to covering
the growing effort to solve problems
for the public good.