September 28, 2015

Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065

Chapter 1: The Nation’s Immigration Laws, 1920 to Today

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.

Click on the arrows below to explore the timeline.

——— % of the U.S. population that is foreign born

Source for the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born: U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” and Pew Research Center tabulations of 2010 and 2013 American Community Surveys (IPUMS).


1790 Naturalization Act

Excluded non-white people from eligibility to naturalize. Naturalization requirements included two years of residence in the country and “good moral character,” and an applicant must be a “free white person.” The Naturalization Act of 1795 extended the residency requirement to five years. In 1798, this was extended to 14 years, then back to five in 1802.


Alien Friends Act 1798

The Alien Friends Act authorized the president to imprison or deport any alien who was deemed dangerous to the U.S. This act was the first to authorize deportation for immigrants. It expired two years after it was enacted.


Alien Enemies Act 1798

The Alien Enemies Act authorized the imprisonment or deportation of male citizens (ages 14 and older) of a hostile nation during times of war; the act was used during World War II, and today a modified version permits the president to detain, relocate or deport alien enemies during war.


Immigration Act of 1864 (also known as An Act to Encourage Immigration)

To address labor shortages due to the Civil War, this act made contracts for immigrant labor formed abroad enforceable by U.S. courts. It also created a commissioner of immigration, appointed by the president to serve under the secretary of state.


Naturalization Act of 1870

Amends naturalization requirements to extend eligibility to individuals of African nativity or descent.


Immigration Act of 1875 (also known as Page Law or Asian Exclusion Act)

Prohibited the immigration of criminals and made bringing to the U.S. or contracting forced Asian laborers a felony. It is the nation’s first restrictive immigration statute.


Chinese Exclusion Act

Banned Chinese laborers from immigrating for the next 10 years and authorized deportation of unauthorized Chinese immigrants. Any Chinese immigrant who resided in the U.S. as of Nov. 17, 1880, could remain but was barred from naturalizing. The 1892 Geary Act extended this law for an additional 10 years and required that Chinese nationals obtain identification papers.


1891 Immigration Act

Expanded the list of exclusions for immigration from prior laws to include those who have a contagious disease and polygamists. Permitted the deportation of any unauthorized immigrants or those who could be excluded from migration based on previous legislation. Made it a federal misdemeanor to bring unauthorized immigrants into the country or aid someone who is entering the U.S. unlawfully. Established a federal Bureau of Immigration.


Immigration Act of 1903 (also known as Anarchist Exclusion Act)

Banned anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes from immigrating. It is the first U.S. law to restrict immigration based on immigrants’ political beliefs.


1917 Immigration Act (also known as “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”)

Banned immigration from most Asian countries, except the Philippines, which was a U.S. colony, and Japan, whose government voluntarily eliminated the immigration of Japanese laborers as part of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. Required immigrants over the age of 16 to demonstrate basic reading ability in any language.


1921 Emergency Quota Act

First U.S. law to create numerical quotas for immigration based on nationality. Quotas were equal to 3% of the foreign-born population of that nationality in the 1910 census. Immigration from Asian countries continued to be barred. Nationality quotas did not apply to countries in the Western Hemisphere, government officials or temporary visitors. Under this law, total annual immigration was capped at 350,000.


Labor Appropriation Act

Establishes U.S. Border Patrol as a federal law enforcement agency to combat illegal immigration and smuggling along the borders between inspection stations. In 1925, the agency’s duties expand to patrolling the seacoasts.


Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as 1924 National Origins Quota Act or Johnson-Reed Act)

Further restricted immigration decreasing the annual cap from 350,000 to 165,000. Nationality quotas equaled 2% of the foreign-born individuals of that nationality in the 1890 census with a minimum quota of 100. As a result, the law favored migration from northern and western European countries with longer histories of migration to the U.S. while limiting migration from eastern and southern European countries with newer immigration patterns. Immigration from Asian countries continued to be barred, and the law added a formal restriction on Japanese immigration. Denied entry to the U.S. to anyone who is ineligible to become a citizen due to race (only whites and people of African nativity or descent were eligible).


Bracero Agreement

A bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to permit Mexican nationals to serve as temporary agricultural workers during WWII labor shortages. Required employers to pay a wage equal to that paid to U.S.-born farmworkers and provide transportation and living expenses. In effect until 1964.


Magnuson Act (also known as Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943)

Repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and established a quota of about 105 Chinese immigrants per year. In contrast to other quotas, which are based on country of citizenship, the quota for Chinese was based on ancestry. Chinese residents were also eligible to naturalize.


Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as McCarran-Walter Act)

Formally removed race as an exclusion for immigration and naturalization and granted Asian countries a minimum quota of 100 visas per year (though this was still based on ancestry, not nationality; for example, a person with Chinese ancestry coming from the U.K. would be counted in the Chinese quota regardless of nationality/birthplace). Updated the national origins quota to one-sixth of 1% of each nationality’s population in the 1920 census. As a result, most spots were for immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany. Under this law, political activities, ideology and mental health, among other criteria, served as a basis for exclusion and deportation. This law also created quota preferences for skilled immigrants and family reunification.


Refugee Relief Act

Authorized special non-quota visas for more than 200,000 refugees and allowed these immigrants to become permanent residents.


Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

In 1961, President Kennedy directed the secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (forerunner to the Department of Health and Human Services) to create a program to provide medical care, financial aid, help with education and resettlement, and child welfare services for Cuban refugees. The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act formalized the Cuban Refugee Program and assisted individuals in the Western Hemisphere fleeing “persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion or political opinion.”


1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as Hart-Celler Act) (1965 amendments)

Replaced the national origins quota system with a seven-category preference system emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants. (Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were exempt from the preference system until 1976.) No visa cap was placed on the number of immediate family members of U.S. citizens admitted each year. The Eastern Hemisphere was granted 170,000 of the total visas each year with a 20,000 cap per country. Beginning in 1968, the Western Hemisphere was given 120,000 visas annually with no specific country limits.


1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

The Ford administration began evacuating 130,000 Vietnamese in early 1975 as it became clear that South Vietnam would fall to the communist North. This act extended the refugee delineation to include those fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam and designated funds for the relocation and resettlement of refugees. In 1976, it was amended to include Laotian refugees.


Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976 and 1978

The 1976 amendments to the 1965 law included the Western Hemisphere in the preference system and the 20,000 per year visa limits. This mostly affected Mexico at the time since it was the only Western Hemisphere country that substantially exceeded 20,000 visas annually. In 1978, an amendment to the law established a worldwide limit of 290,000 visas annually. This removed the prior Eastern and Western hemisphere caps.


The Refugee Act of 1980

Creates a general policy for admission of refugees and adopts the United Nations’ refugee definition. Removes refugees from the immigration preference system, expanding the annual admission for refugees. The removal of refugees from the immigration preference system reduced the annual visa allocation to 270,000.

Subsequent executive action and legislation for refugees included deportation relief and admission based on region or nationality. Examples include the George H.W. Bush administration’s protection of Chinese nationals from deportation after Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 and the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of 1998.


Immigration Reform and Control Act (also known as Simpson-Mazzoli Act)

Granted a pathway to permanent residency to unauthorized immigrant workers who lived in the U.S. since 1982 or worked in certain agricultural jobs. (Approximately 2.7 million were granted this status.) Creates the H-2A visa for temporary, seasonal agricultural workers. Imposes sanctions on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers and increases border enforcement.

In 1987, the Reagan administration decided that minor children of parents who were legalized under the 1986 law should be protected from deportation. In 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration decided that all spouses and unmarried children of people who were legalized under the 1986 law could apply for permission to remain in the country and receive work permits. (This policy was formalized in the Immigration Act of 1990.)


Immigration Act of 1990

Increased annual immigration cap to 700,000 during fiscal years 1992-1994, followed by 675,000 as of the 1995 fiscal year, and revises the preference categories. This allocates 480,000 family-sponsored visas, 140,000 employment-based visas, and 55,000 “diversity immigrant” visas annually. It also creates H-1B visas for highly skilled temporary workers and H-2B for seasonal, non-agricultural workers and revises the grounds for exclusion and deportation, particularly those based on political and ideological grounds. This act authorized the attorney general to grant “temporary protected status” (TPS) to nationals of countries suffering from armed conflicts, natural disasters or ““other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” Today, the secretary of homeland security may designate a country for TPS under the same conditions.


Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act

Increases enforcement at the border and in the interior, including mandates to build fences at the highest incidence areas of the Southwest border. Establishes or revises measures for worksite enforcement, to remove criminal and other deportable aliens and to tighten admissions eligibility requirements. Expands restrictions laid out in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on access to means-tested public assistance programs for new legal permanent residents and unauthorized immigrants.


Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act

Requires an electronic data system be used to make available information relevant to admissions and removability of immigrants; mandates implementation of a visa entry-exit data system (which becomes US-VISIT).


Homeland Security Act

In the wake of 9/11, the Homeland Security Act transfers nearly all the functions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).


Secure Fence Act

Following the failure of immigration reform legislation in the Senate, this law mandates the construction of a double-layered fence approximately 700 miles long (not yet completed, largely due to lack of funding) and increases staffing and technology at the Southwest border.


Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Through an executive action by President Obama, young adults (ages 15 to 30) brought to the U.S. illegally as children can apply for temporary deportation relief and a two-year work permit. As of March 31, 2015, roughly 665,000 applicants had been approved for DACA.


Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and DACA Program Expanded

A second executive action by Presiden Obama, it allows unauthorized immigrant parents who have lived in the U.S. at least five years and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to apply for deportation relief and a three-year work permit. Also expands eligibility for DACA to any unauthorized immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally as a child. This executive action is on hold as a state challenge works its way through the courts.

Click to see additional references

In addition to the following references, legislation text was used to develop the timeline.

DeSilver, Drew. 2014. “Executive Actions on Immigration have long history.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, November.

Ewing, Walter A. 2012. “Opportunity and Exclusion: A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy.” Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center, January. “Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.”

Migration Policy Institute. 2013. “Major U.S. Immigration Laws, 1790-Present.” Washington, D.C: March.

Neuman, Gerald L. and Charles F. Hobson. 2005. “John Marshall and the Enemy Alien: A Case Missing from the Canon.” New York, NY: Columbia Law School.

Passel, Jeffrey S. and Mark Hugo Lopez. 2012. “Up to 1.7 Million Unauthorized Immigrant Youth May Benefit from New Deportation Rules.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, August. “Immigration Policy: Past and Present”.

“Immigration Policy: Past and Present,” PBS.

Tichenor, Daniel J. 2002. “Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in American.” Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Waters, Mary C., Reed Ueda, Helen B. Marrow, eds. 2007. “The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2015. “Number of I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by Fiscal Year, Quarter, Intake, Biometrics and Case Status: 2012-2015 (March 31).”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Temporary Protected Status.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Border Patrol History.”

U.S. Department of State. “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations.”

University of Washington-Bothell. 2007. “U.S. Immigration Legislation Online.”

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).

  1. Although these three nations were allowed 108,931 visas out of the total quota-visa allotment of 158,561, not all visas were used, and the three nations represented 57% of actual immigrants admitted under the national origins quotas in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1965.
  2. From 1860 to 1920, the foreign-born share of the population fluctuated between 13% and 15%.
  3. The 1921 law had set quotas based on the 1910 foreign-born population of each nationality.
  4. Massey and Pren (2012) argue that the end of the Bracero program caused the surge in unauthorized immigration.