Immigration is one of the most hotly debated and controversial issues in American politics. This can be attributed to the significant role that it has played in shaping the history of the United States. The US is one of the countries that have flexible immigration policies in the world. In past decades, the immigration policies were not as stringent as they are today as they encouraged unrestricted migration to the US in order to populate uninhabited areas.
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However, the emergence of an era of rapid transport and communication led to the enactment of policies that limited immigration. After the Civil War, some states introduced laws that regulated the movement of people in and out of their territories. Restrictive policies can be traced back to 1875 after the Supreme Court ruled that it was the responsibility of the federal government to regulate immigration.
The United States immigration policies have been directed by two opposing ideologies. On the one hand, immigrants are a source of cheap and skilled labor. On the other hand, fresh arrivals are viewed as rivals by native citizens because they increase competition for jobs and introduce eccentric cultures that dilute the American culture. The aforementioned ideologies have shaped America’s policies since the 18th century.
The immigration laws of the 19th century facilitated America’s colonization because the country was densely populated. In that regard, they encouraged foreigners to migrate and settle in the country. In the 1880s, the era of restrictions began. As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that the federal government was responsible for the regulation of immigration. For that reason, the government formed the Immigration Service in 1891 after a rapid surge of immigrants in the country.
The American policy of the 21st century originated from the effects of the immigration waves that occurred between 1800 and 1914. The first wave occurred in 1800. During that period, the largest percentage of immigrants comprised of English-speakers who originated from the British Isles. The second wave occurred in the 1840s and 1850s, and immigrants mainly included Irish and German Catholics who challenged the stronghold of the Protestant Church in America.
This immigration wave ended in the 1860s after the conclusion of the Civil War. The third wave took place between 1880 and 1914, and more than 20 million immigrants from Europe entered the US. They took jobs in industries and raised the population of America immensely. This wave was slowed down by World War I, and it was finished by the immigration quotas that were implemented in the 1920s.
The Immigration Policy during the 1880s and early 1900s
The policy prior to this period encouraged immigration because the US was mainly uninhabited. Therefore, its main concern was reporting residency requirements. The centralization of the system did not change the policy much because the State Department’s major role was the enforcement of residency requirements and maritime law (Perlmann 54). The biggest factors that caused policy changes included a shortage of workers and worsening economic conditions.
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The shortage of labor during the Civil War led to the hiring and importation of laborers from poor countries. As a result, migration to the US was uncontrolled. A change in policy in 1875 led to the introduction of regulation laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first regulatory legislation passed in America. It was passed after widespread complaints from Californians of immigrants’ willingness to work for lower remuneration (Perlmann 62).
The act led to the banning of Chinese laborers from entering America. During this period, the immigration policy changed from open to regulatory and its main goal was to regulate the entry of immigrants from various parts of the world (Molina 43). The biggest factors that led to these changes included the uncontrolled entry of immigrants and differences regarding the immigration policies adopted by states. During the early years of the 1900s, each state had its own policy, and the number of immigrants in the country was increasing rapidly. Therefore, the government intervened by designating Ellis Island in New York as a federal immigration point.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
This was the first significant legislation that regulated immigration to the US. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Arthur in 1882. It marked the end of the open policy era that was characterized by unregulated immigration (Bayor 53). Chinese laborers had brought stiff competition in the labor market because they accepted jobs that offered lower pay than that accepted by Native Americans. The act culminated from many years of hostility and anti-migration agitation mainly due to economic issues. The Geary Act of 1892 extended the ban for ten years before it was made permanent in 1902 (Perlmann 67).
This legislation was significant because it marked the commencement of an era of rigid American immigration policy. After the law was enacted, the United States became a nation that admitted immigrants cautiously. In later years, the immigration policy changed and the act was repealed in 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act (Bayor 57). The act allowed the entry of 105 Chinese immigrants every year. Several factors contributed to the repeal: the establishment of immigrant quota systems, the cooperation between China and the US in World War II, and the disappearance of anti-Chinese sentiments.
The 20th Century Immigration Policy
The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by an influx of unskilled laborers from all over the world who competed for jobs with Native Americans. Many of them were unskilled and they caused an economic uproar because they worked for lower wages. In addition, the three immigration waves had increased the number of immigrants exponentially. In that regard, the immigration policy changed from unlimited and unregulated to controlled and capped immigration based on aspects such as country of origin and place of birth (within or outside the US) (Molina 63). The biggest factors that led up to this change included stiff competition in the labor market, uncertainty over national security during World War I, and the arrival of uneducated immigrants.
The Immigration Act of 1924
America’s immigration policy in the early 1900s focused mainly on naturalization and the limitation of immigrant entry. For example, in 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was passed to temporarily regulate the admission of immigrants from different countries. After 3 years, the Immigration Act of 1924 introduced some amendments and made the quota system permanent. The act allowed the entry of 2 percent of a nationality’s population based on the 1890 census (Bayor 61).
This system prevented the entry of Asians and allowed the unrestricted admission of people from the Western Hemisphere (Molina 78). The law prevented the influx of immigrants from economically stagnant countries. In that regard, it was criticized for promoting discrimination based on race and ethnicity. The main goal of the legislation was to preserve the ideal of homogeneity in America.
The Nationality Act of 1940
The act laid down the requirements that individuals had to fulfill in order to become American citizens by birth or naturalization. Citizenship by birth was granted to children born to US parents outside or within the country (Bayor 72). In addition, it outlined the conditions that prevented an individual from obtaining citizenship, and how it could be terminated. The act was the first legislation that attempted to encompass into a single code all the laws that dealt with the naturalization and nationality of immigrants.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948
Prior to the passage of this law, the US policy on immigration did not have provisions for helping immigrants who were running away from war or political instability in their countries. This law was enacted to provide safety to refugees who were running away from the Cold War in communist countries. After World War II, millions of people were displaced, and the United States created the displaced person program to offer residence to more than 200,000 displaced Europeans. The act was passed in response to America’s failure to offer residence to Jewish refugees in the 1930s.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
This legislation upheld the quota system and ended the exclusion of Asian immigrants from entering the US, although it did not eradicate discrimination against the group. Each Asian nation was awarded 100 visas annually and laws that prevented the naturalization of Asians were repealed (Bayor 97). The act was passed during the early years of the Cold War. The controversy surrounding the legislation emanated from disagreements between two schools of thought that held different beliefs.
One of the schools linked immigration to foreign policy while the other school-linked it to increased insecurity. One group argued that the law encouraged immigration from northern and western parts of Europe. Therefore, it was an overt expression of America’s dislike of people from Eastern Europe and Asia.
The other group argued that communist infiltration through immigration could destabilize America and pose security threats. In that regard, restricted immigration was the best option for the country’s security and stability (Bayor 102). During this period, economic factors were excluded during the enactment of laws. The legislation has been amended many times since its passage in 1952. However, it remains the foundation of the United States federal law that governs immigration policy.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965
This law marked the end of an era whose immigration policy was based on the national-origins quota system and the beginning of an era whose policy was based on attracting skilled labor, reuniting families, and providing residency to refugees of violence or political unrest (Macias-Rojas 67). Under the law, people with extraordinary skills in science, arts, and business as well as professionals and investors were most preferred. The law abolished the quota system (Chin and Villazor 51).
However, it placed caps on the number of immigrants allowed per country in the aforementioned categories. The new immigration policy allowed families to migrate to the US in order to join their loved ones (Chin and Villazor 56). The act facilitated the influx of immigrants from warring and poor countries. For example, the number of people from countries where violence was a common occurrence such as Cambodia and Vietnam, and from poor countries such as Cuba increased rapidly. The law allowed the entry of more than 30 million documented immigrants into the US (Chin and Villazor 58).
The Immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s
Illegal immigration was one of the most contentious issues in American politics in the 1980s. The number of undocumented immigrants was on the rise and the US needed more stringent laws to mitigate the problem. Many immigrants were entering the US through the Mexico and Canada borders. During this period, the immigration policy was aimed at curbing the increasing entry of illegal immigrants into the US as well as increasing the legal means of immigration. The biggest factors that led to a policy change included slack immigration legislation, inadequate reinforcement of laws, and the entry of people with communist ideals that threatened national security.
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The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
This law was passed based on the recommendations of a congressional committee whose role was to find ways to reduce illegal immigration and amend the system. After its enactment, the hiring of illegal immigrants was banned. The legislation developed a system that would be used to verify the legality of employees and that increased funding to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for enhanced enforcement of immigration laws (Macias-Rojas 87). It also granted legal status to undocumented immigrants who fulfilled specific conditions. Approximately 2.7 million individuals were awarded permanent residency under the law.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
The main goal of this legislation was the enforcement of immigration laws by increasing funding for border security. For example, it raised the number of immigration officers who investigated visa overstays and human smuggling (Stevens 74). The law also introduced penalties for people caught crossing the border illegally, as well as new regulations that guided the process of awarding asylum. The procedure of removing illegal immigrants was also amended: expedited removal and prohibited reentry of undocumented people for a specific period was introduced (Stevens 76).
The Immigration Policy of the 21st century
The biggest factors that led to policy changes included increased cases of terrorism and rising numbers of illegal immigrants. The immigration policy of the 21st century aims to reduce illegal immigration by streamlining the admission and deportation processes. The US is the largest economy in the world. Therefore, admitting immigrants for economic gain is not a priority anymore. The enhancement of national security and the improvement of American society are of utmost importance.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002
The immigration policy of the 21st century was largely influenced by the September 11, 2001 attack, which led to the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The US became stricter with the admission of immigrants. The legislation created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that took over most of the roles that involved the enforcement of immigration laws (Stevens 87). According to the act, foreigners can enter the US either through temporary or permanent admission.
The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002
This law increased border security and enhanced the process of disseminating intelligence among law enforcement agencies. It authorized the creation of a data system that would be used to determine the acceptability or deportation eligibility of foreigners. The act facilitated the deportation of many undocumented immigrants since its passage.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006
The main goal of this act was to deter illegal immigration by enhancing security along the borders. In that regard, it authorized the introduction of a new surveillance system for border security: satellites, radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cameras (Macias-Rojas 97). It contained a provision that ordered the construction of a wall along the Mexico border.
Executive Actions by President Obama
President Obama established two programs that influenced America’s immigration policy during his presidency: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of US Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Both programs relied on deferred action and addressed the issue of immigrant deportation. The programs were highly debated because they were executive actions and not new laws. President Trump has also tried to address illegal immigration by issuing executive orders. For example, the enhanced security within the US by introducing fines against cities that hired illegal immigrants for the construction of the wall on the southern border, and suspended the entry of people from Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Iran for three months.
America’s immigration policy has undergone several changes in the last century. The changes have been characterized by the passage of laws that reflected the immigration policy at specific periods. Before the beginning of the 20th century, the immigration policy was unrestrictive, and it invited people from different countries in the world to migrate to America because of high labor needs and uninhabited regions.
The 21st-century policy was focused on the naturalization and regulation of immigration. It changed from an open policy to a restrictive one that admitted immigrants based on their skills and nationality. In addition, it created provisions for refugees to receive residency. Today, the immigration policy is focused on mitigating the challenge of illegal immigrants and national insecurity. Immigration procedures are stricter, illegal immigrants are deported, and foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries are prohibited from entering the US.
Bayor, Ronald H, editor. American Immigration and Ethnicity. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Chin, Gabriel, and Rose C. Villazor, editors. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Legislating A New America. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Macias-Rojas, Patrisia. From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America. 1st ed., New York University Press, 2016.
Molina, Natalia. How Race is made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts. University of Carolina Press, 2014.
Perlmann, Joel. America Classifies the Immigrants: From Ellis Island to the 2020 Census. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Stevens, Rachel. Immigration Policy from 1970 to the Present. Routledge, 2016.