Immigration is a complicated issue that has posed numerous challenges for the United States from the earliest stages of its nationhood. Since the 1790s, the American government has worked to address these challenges through the passage of laws designed to control the rate of immigration and deal with problems such as immigrants entering the country illegally. While some of these laws brought much needed reforms and improvements to the American immigration system, others paved the way for racial and ethnic discrimination. Over time, however, significant progress was made in the pursuit of immigration reform that is fair and balanced to all parties involved. Regardless, immigration reform remains a heated issue that still plays an important part in modern American politics.
Early Immigration Reform
Although the United States was a country that could not have existed without immigration, government officials saw a need for immigration reform almost as soon as the nation began. The first law to deal with immigrant rights and citizenship was the 1790 Naturalization Act, which prevented nonwhites from becoming naturalized citizens. Specifically, it limited naturalization to free white people of “good moral character” who lived in America for at least two years. This standard remained in force until African Americans were finally granted citizenship rights through the Naturalization Act of 1870.
The first true immigration law was the Immigration Act of 1875. This law put restrictions on who could legally immigrate to the United States and specifically excluded criminals, people with physical or mental illnesses, and others thought to be undesirable. Other immigration laws passed in the late nineteenth century targeted immigrants coming from certain countries, especially China. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, temporarily banned the immigration of Chinese laborers and allowed for the deportation of illegal Chinese immigrants.
Immigration Reform in the Twentieth Century
In the early twentieth century, the rate and patterns of American immigration changed significantly. Before that time, most of the people immigrating to America came from western and northern Europe. By 1900, however, there were far more immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe. Before long, American leaders became concerned about the possible consequences of such rapid, high-volume immigration and moved to address the problem. Their solution was to pass laws like the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, which put a firm cap on annual immigration and limited the number of people who could come into America from each foreign country. As immigration gradually declined in the 1930s and 1940s because of the Great Depression and World War II, however, these laws became less necessary and started to be replaced. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act reopened Chinese immigration and did away with the idea of preventing people from immigrating simply because of their race. It also led to the creation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency that oversaw American immigration for decades. Just over ten years later, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act formally ended the country quota system and instead placed emphasis on attracting skilled immigrants and reuniting immigrant families.
The next major step in immigration reform came in 1986. That year saw the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was designed to help millions of Latin American immigrants who were in the country illegally to attain US citizenship. By this time, illegal immigration, especially of people from Mexico and other Latin American countries, was starting to become a particularly pressing problem. In addition to clearing a path to citizenship for undocumented Latin American immigrants, the Immigration Reform and Control Act also attempted to address the illegal immigration problem by establishing legal consequences for businesses that employed people who were in the country illegally. Several more efforts to reduce illegal immigration were put forth in the 1990s, including the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which strengthened the Southwestern border and tightened the requirements immigrants had to meet to qualify for entering the United States.
Modern Immigration Reform
Immigration reform continued to be a hot-button topic in the early twenty-first century. In 2003, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) replaced the INS. From that point forward, the responsibilities of the INS were handled by three different DHS agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As far as policy was concerned, one of the first major achievements in immigration reform came with 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by President Barack Obama’s administration. This program made it easier for young people who had been brought into the United States as minors to avoid being deported and to obtain work permits. Two years later, the administration introduced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. This offered some of the same help to immigrants in the country illegally who were parents of children born in the United States. Both programs were the subject of a US Supreme Court case in 2016, however, and remained on hold as of early 2019 pending future legal decisions. In the meantime, the public debate on immigration reform and how to deal with illegal immigration continues to be a major issue in American politics.
US Attitudes toward Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants Brought to the United States