When the United States was first established, immigration was unrestricted for European people. The Naturalization Act of 1791 stated that any free white person of “good character,” who had been living in the United States for two years or longer could apply for citizenship.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to place broad restrictions on certain immigrant groups. This was in response to anti-Chinese sentiment.
In March 1891, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1891. Immigrants who were paupers, or likely to become public charges, were rejected. Varying amounts of “show money” were required to prove to the authorities that one was not likely to become a public charge.
In 1910, the Department of Commerce and Labor issued instructions ordering the arrest and deportation of assisted immigrants, attempting to restrict those who may have borrowed “show money” from others to gain entry.
In the beginning of the 20th century, there were several attempts to pass legislation requiring that immigrants pass a literacy test. These efforts were finally incorporated into the restrictive Immigration Act of 1917. This act marked a crest of xenophobia that had broken out in the United States as a result of American involvement in World War I.
Labor unions were hostile toward the mounting numbers of possible rivals for jobs; to that end, in 1921, the American Immigration Quota Act used the census of 1910 to establish a quota, stating that 3% of each nationality would be allowed per year.
In May 1924, the United States Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which allowed only 2% of each nationality of the foreign-born residents in the United States as of 1890 henceforth to be admitted into the country. The law favored immigration from Northern and Western European countries, severely restricting movement of Eastern and Southern European immigrants as well as immigrants from Asian countries. This is the law that caused immigration of Jews persecuted by Nazis in Eastern Europe to be nearly impossible.
This restrictive law remained in place until the system was overhauled in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, which formally ended the quota system. It was replaced with a seven-category preference system emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants.
The Refugee Act of 1980 established the United States’ policy governing the admission of refugees. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act provided a path to amnesty for undocumented migrants.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, increasing terrorism and a rise in nativism has caused immigration law to become increasingly restrictive. These measures emphasized border control, prioritized enforcement of laws on hiring immigrants and tightened admissions eligibility.