List of United States immigration laws

A number of major federal statutes, executive actions, and court decisions relating to immigration procedures, and enforcement have been enacted for the United States. Proposed laws, state, and municipal laws, court decisions, and regulations relating to immigration are not listed on this page.

Year Name of legislation or case Major highlights
1790 Naturalization Act of 1790 Established the rules for naturalized citizenship, as per Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, but placed no restrictions on immigration. Citizenship was limited to white persons, with no other restriction on non-whites. Note: this is a restriction on naturalization (voting and office-holding), not on immigration.
1795 Naturalization Act of 1795 Lengthened required residency to become citizen. Again, this is a restriction on naturalization, not on immigration.

Naturalization Act (officially An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization; ch. 54, 1 Stat. 566)

Alien Friends Act (officially An Act Concerning Aliens; ch. 58, 1 Stat. 570)

Alien Enemies Act (officially An Act Respecting Alien Enemies; ch. 66, 1 Stat. 577)

  • Extended the duration of residence required for immigrants to become citizens to 14 years. Enacted June 18, 1798, with no expiration date, it was repealed in 1802.
  • Authorized the president to deport any resident immigrant considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." It was activated June 25, 1798, with a two-year expiration date.
  • Authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States of America. Enacted July 6, 1798, and providing no sunset provision, the act remains intact today as 50 U.S.C. § 21
1802 Naturalization Law of 1802
1870 Naturalization Act of 1870
  • Extended the naturalization process to "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."
  • Other non-whites were not included in this act and remained excluded from naturalization, per the Naturalization Act of 1790
1875 Page Act of 1875 (Sect. 141, 18 Stat. 477, 1873-March 1875)
  • The first federal immigration law and prohibited the entry of immigrants considered as "undesirable"
  • The law classified as "undesirable" any individual from Asia who was coming to America to be a contract laborer
  • Strengthen the ban against "coolie" laborers, by imposing a fine of up to $2,000 and maximum jail sentence of one year upon anyone who tried to bring a person from China, Japan, or any oriental country to the United States "without their free and voluntary consent, for the purpose of holding them to a term of service"
1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
  • Restricted immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years.
  • Prohibited Chinese naturalization.
  • Provided deportation procedures for illegal Chinese.
  • Marked the birth of illegal immigration (in America).[1]
  • The Act was "a response to racism [in America] and to anxiety about threats from cheap labor [from China]."[2]
1882 Immigration Act of 1882
  • Imposed a 50 cent head tax to fund immigration officials.
1885 Alien Contract Labor Law (Sess. II Chap. 164; 23 Stat. 332) Prohibited the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States
1891 Immigration Act of 1891
  • First comprehensive immigration laws for the US.
  • Bureau of Immigration set up in the Treasury Dept.[3]
  • Immigration Bureau directed to deport unlawful aliens.
  • Empowered "the superintendent of immigration to enforce immigration laws".[4]
1892 Geary Act Extended and strengthened the Chinese Exclusion Act.
1898 United States v. Wong Kim Ark[5] The Supreme Court ruled that a child of Chinese descent born in the United States - whose parents at the time of his birth are subjects of the Emperor of China but who are domiciled in the United States as permanent residents; are carrying on business there; and are not employed in any diplomatic or other official capacity under the Emperor of China - is a citizen of the United States by virtue of having been born "in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof," per the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Several years later, in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, a number of Chinese immigrants who were otherwise subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act were nonetheless able to claim American citizenship by alleging they were born in San Francisco, and that their birth certificates had been destroyed along with those of everyone else who had been born in San Francisco. "Papers for fictitious children were sold in China, allowing Chinese to immigrate despite the laws." [1]

1903 Immigration Act of 1903 (Anarchist Exclusion Act) Added four inadmissible classes: anarchists, people with epilepsy, beggars, and importers of prostitutes
1906 Naturalization Act of 1906
  • Standardized naturalization procedures
  • Made some knowledge of English a requirement for citizenship
  • Established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization
1907 Immigration Act of 1907 Restricted immigration for certain classes of disabled and diseased people
1917 Immigration Act of 1917 (Barred Zone Act) Restricted immigration from Asia by creating an "Asiatic Barred Zone" and introduced a reading test for all immigrants over sixteen years of age, with certain exceptions for children, wives, and elderly family members.
1918 Immigration Act of 1918 Expanded on the provisions of the Anarchist Exclusion Act.
1921 Emergency Quota Act
  • Limited the number of immigrants a year from any country to 3% of those already in the US from that country as per the 1910 census.

"An unintended consequence of the 1920s legislation was an increase in illegal immigration. Many Europeans who did not fall under the quotas migrated to Canada or Mexico, which [as Western Hemisphere nations] were not subject to national-origin quotas; [and] subsequently they slipped into the United States illegally."[6]

1922 The Cable Act of 1922 (ch. 411, 42 Stat. 1021, "Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act") Reversed former immigration laws regarding marriage, also known as the Married Women's Citizenship Act or the Women's Citizenship Act. Previously, a woman lost her US citizenship if she married a foreign man, since she assumed the citizenship of her husband, a law that did not apply to men who married foreign women. The law repealed sections 3 and 4 of the Expatriation Act of 1907.
1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act)
  • Imposed first permanent numerical limit on immigration.
  • Began a national-origin quota system.
1924 National Origins Formula
  • Established with the Immigration Act of 1924.
  • Total annual immigration was capped at 150,000. Immigrants fit into two categories: those from quota-nations and those from non-quota nations.
  • Immigrant visas from quota-nations were restricted to the same ratio of residents from the country of origin out of 150,000 as the ratio of foreign-born nationals in the United States. The percentage out of 150,000 was the relative number of visas a particular nation received.
  • Non-quota nations, notably those contiguous to the United States only had to prove an immigrant's residence in that country of origin for at least two years prior to emigration to the United States.
  • Laborers from Asiatic nations were excluded but exceptions existed for professionals, clergy, and students to obtain visas.

Equal Nationality Act of 1934

  • Allowed foreign-born children of American mothers and alien fathers who had entered America before age 18 and lived in America for five years to apply for American citizenship for the first time.
  • Made the naturalization process quicker for American women's alien husbands.

Federal officials deported "Tens of thousands, and possibly more than 400,000, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans... Many, mostly children, were U.S. citizens."[7] "Applications for legal admission into the United States increased following World War II — and so did illegal immigration."[8] Some used fraudulent marriages as their method of illegal entry in the U.S. "Japanese immigration became disproportionately female, as more women left Japan as "picture brides", betrothed to emigrant men into the U.S. whom they had never met."[9]

1940 Nationality Act of 1940 Pertains chiefly to "Nationality at Birth," Nationality through Naturalization," and "Loss of Nationality"
1943 Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943 (Magnuson Act) Repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and permitted Chinese nationals already in the country to become naturalized citizens. A quota of 105 new Chinese immigrants were allowed into America per year.
1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act)
  • Set a quota for aliens with skills needed in the US.
  • Increased the power of the government to deport illegal immigrants suspected of Communist sympathies.
1953 Kwong Hai Chew v. Colding, 344 U.S. 590 (1953) The Supreme Court found, "The Bill of Rights is a futile authority for the alien seeking admission for the first time to these shores. But while an alien lawfully enters and resides in this country he becomes invested with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all people within our borders".
1954 Operation Wetback Immigration and Naturalization Service roundup and deportation of illegal immigrants in selected areas of California, Arizona, and Texas along the border. The U.S. Border Patrol later reported that more than 1.3 million people were deported or left the U.S. voluntarily under the threat of deportation in 1954.[10][better source needed]
1965 INA Amendments (Hart-Celler Act)
  • Repealed the national-origin quotas.
  • Initiated a visa system for family reunification and skills.
  • Set a quota for Western Hemisphere immigration.
  • Set a 20k country limit for Eastern Hemisphere aliens.
1966 Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act Cuban nationals who enter, or were already present in the United States, legal status.

The United States saw a total number of illegal immigrants estimated at 1.1 million, or half of one percent of the United States population.

1980 The Refugee Act of 1980 Created a policy for admitting refugees with the United Nations’ definition of refugees[11]
  • About 1.3 million illegal immigrants entered the US.
1982 Plyler v. Doe,[12] 457 U.S. 202 (1982) The court also stated that illegal immigrants are "within the jurisdiction" of the states in which they reside and, therefore, are under the equal protection laws of the fourteenth amendment, and stated, "We have never suggested that the class of persons who might avail themselves of the equal protection guarantee is less than coextensive with that entitled to due process. To the contrary, we have recognized [457 U.S. 202, 212] that both provisions were fashioned to protect an identical class of persons, and to reach every exercise of state authority."
1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act
  • Started sanctions for knowingly hiring illegal aliens.
  • Provided amnesty to illegal aliens already in the US.[13][better source needed]
  • Increased border enforcement.
  • Made it a crime to hire an illegal immigrant
  • Created a path to permanent residency for some unauthorized immigrant workers[11]
  • Created the H-2A visa for seasonal agricultural workers[11]

Over 5.8 million illegal immigrants entered the US in the 1990s.[14] Mexico rose to the head of the list of sending countries, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and China.[15]

1990 Immigration Act
  • Increased legal immigration ceilings.
  • Created a diversity admissions category.
  • Tripled the number of visas for priority workers and professionals with U.S. job offers[citation needed] [16]
1990 United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez[17] The court reiterated the finding of Kwong Hai Chew v. Colding, 344 U.S. 590, 596 (1953), "The Bill of Rights is a futile authority for the alien seeking admission for the first time to these shores. But while an alien lawfully enters and resides in this country he becomes invested with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all people within our borders".

Stated, "those cases in which aliens have been determined to enjoy certain constitutional rights establish only that aliens receive such protections when they have come within the territory of, and have developed substantial connections with, this country. See, e. g., Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 212 ."

1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRaIRA)
  • Phone verification for worker authentication by employers.
  • Access to welfare benefits more difficult for legal aliens.
  • Increased border enforcement.
  • Reed Amendment attempted to deny visas to former U.S. citizens, but was never enforced[18]
1999 Rodriguez v. United States, 169 F.3d 1342, (11th Cir. 1999) Held that statutes which discriminate within the class of aliens comport with the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment (and the equal protection principles it incorporates) so long as they satisfy rational basis scrutiny.
Post 9/11/2001
  • An estimated 3.1 million immigrants entered the United States illegally between 2000 and 2005.[16]
  • From 1998 to 2001, Mexicans accounted for 68% of immigrants who entered the United States illegally. That percentage jumped to 78% for the years between 2001 and 2005, mostly due to stricter security measures that followed the September 11, 2001 Attacks upon the United States (which more efficiently prevented illegal entry from nations that did not share a land or maritime boundary with the United States).[19]
2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act
  • Provided for more Border Patrol agents.
  • Requires that schools report foreign students attending classes.
  • Stipulates that foreign nationals in the US will be required to carry IDs with biometric technology.[20]
2002 Homeland Security Act of 2002
  • Moved all transportation, customs, immigration, and border security agencies to operate under the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Requires agencies to share information and coordinate efforts in relation to national security and border control.
  • Stipulates which agencies are responsible for which duties in relation to immigration and border security.
  • Outlines specific requirements on handling of children in immigration and border issues.
2005 REAL ID Act
  • Required use of IDs meeting certain security standards to enter government buildings, board planes, open bank accounts.
  • Created more restrictions on political asylum
  • Severely curtailed habeas corpus relief for immigrants
  • Increased immigration enforcement mechanisms
  • Altered judicial review
  • Established national standards for state driver licenses.
  • Cleared the way for the building of border barriers.
2010 DREAM Act
2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (executive action)
  • On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. They are also eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time. Deferred action does not provide lawful status.[21] As of 2018, the Trump administration was attempting to phase out the program, but was at least temporarily blocked by several lawsuits.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Chinese Laborers Work on a Railroad How Illegal Immigration Was Born. American Heritage. By Claire Lui. Retrieved: March 7, 2008. Archived July 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, Eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, (1997). The National Academic Press. page 23, 3rd paragraph. ISBN 0-309-06356-6.
  3. ^ Hester, Torrie (2010). "Protection, Not Punishment: Legislative and Judicial formation of U.S. Deportation Policy, 1882-19044". Journal of American Ethnic History.
  4. ^ 2 Background to Contemporary U.S. Immigration - The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration - The National Academies Press. 1997. doi:10.17226/5779. ISBN 978-0-309-06356-2.
  5. ^ "FindLaw's United States Supreme Court case and opinions".
  6. ^ James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, Eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, (1997). The National Academic Press. page 26, 4th paragraph. ISBN 0-309-06356-6.
  7. ^ U.S. urged to apologize for 1930s deportations. USA Today, April 5, 2006. By Wendy Koch. Retrieved: March 7, 2008.
  8. ^ James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, Eds. "The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration", (1997). The National Academic Press. page 27, 2nd paragraph. ISBN 0-309-06356-6.
  9. ^ Japanese Immigration via Fraudulent Marriage.
  10. ^ How Eisenhower solved illegal border crossings from Mexico, John Dillin, July 6, 2006, Accessed April 2, 2013
  11. ^ a b c "How U.S. immigration laws and rules have changed through history". Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 13, 2020.
  12. ^ PLYLER v. DOE, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) Argued December 1, 1981 Decided June 15, 1982
  13. ^ Until 1986 the US had never forgiven the act of illegal immigration.
  14. ^ Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population March 21, 2005 Page 8.
  15. ^ James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, Eds. "The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration", (1997). The National Academic Press. page 28. ISBN 0-309-06356-6.
  16. ^ a b Immigration Act of 1990 (Pub.L. 101–649, 104 Stat. 4978, enacted November 29, 1990.)
  17. ^ "FindLaw's United States Supreme Court case and opinions".
  18. ^ Kirsch, Michael S. (2006). "The Tax Code as Nationality Law" (PDF). Harvard Journal on Legislation. 43 (2): 375–436. Retrieved May 18, 2012.[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ More Mexicans migrating to U.S. than die in Mexico
  20. ^ Rubén Martínez. The New Americans. (New York: The New Press, 2004). Page 22.
  21. ^ "The Reasoning and Implementation of the Decision". Retrieved January 25, 2018.

Further readingEdit

  • Lemay, Michael and Elliott Robert Barkan (editors). U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Greenwood Press, 1999. ISBN 0-313-30156-5
  • Zolberg, Aristide. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-674-02218-1

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External linksEdit