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Laws and History

Immigration law in the United States of America is a federal issue underneath the primary control of Congress.  Prior to 1882, general immigration practice in the United States allowed for immigrants to arrive at a U.S. port or border and they were granted entry.  Various laws were passed before 1882 that limited who could immigrate into the United States.  These laws targeted criminals, prostitutes, and other groups deemed “undesirable” by Congress.  Congress’ focus during the 19th Century was to discourage, not encourage, immigration, particularly on the East Coast.

Although the United States relied heavily upon immigrant workers to perform significant labor jobs in the 18th Century, as well as to help colonize newly acquired territory in the West, by the late 19th Century the United States began to slip into a recession.  Significant infrastructure was largely completed, particularly the Trans-Continental Railroad, and there became less of an immediate need for labor workers.  In response Congress passed two significant laws: 1) The Chinese Exclusion Acts which excluded Chinese workers from entering the U.S. and 2) the Act of February 26, 1885 which prohibited the importation of non-citizens laborers under contract into the U.S. to perform labor of any kind.  Interestingly, the Chinese Exclusion Acts were in effect in the United States until 1943.

The Immigration Act of March 3, 1891 established the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration (later renamed the Bureau of Immigration) under the umbrella of the Treasury Department.  This act increased admissibility standards by excluding people who were likely to commit a crime, those suffering from contagious diseases, and also made it illegal to increase immigration through advertising.  Furthermore, ship owners who transported people denied admission were fined and forced to return the person to the country from where they came.

Congress continued to pass laws in the early 20th Century aimed at decreasing immigration through increasing standards of admission.  For example, the Immigration Act of 1917 forced immigrants to pass a literacy test to gain admission while the Immigration Act of 1921 imposed quotas for different regions and countries.  Although the Western Hemisphere was excluded form quotas, this was the first in a series of efforts by Congress to cap the amount of people immigrating from specific countries.

In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that superceded the Immigration Act of 1921.  This law particularly targeted Jews immigrating from Eastern Europe as a result of persecution.  The act prohibited immigration to the United States without a visa issued at an American Consulate in the person’s home country.  Further, if a person was legally unable to become a U.S. citizen, they were denied entry to the United States (remember, during this time the Chinese Exclusion Laws kept Chinese and Japanese from becoming citizens).  This law remained the major immigration law in the United States until 1952.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA) was passed.  Also referred to as the McCarran-Walter Act (the main congressional sponsors of the Act), the INA has remained the main body of immigration law in the United States.  The INA created a preference system by which foreign nationals could receive visas to enter the U.S., because the INA removed quotas based on race and instead determined quotas based on nationality.  The preference system of delegating visas to people in other nations was focused on economics, allowing highly trained workers, professors, or investors into the country before untrained laborers were granted access.  Furthermore, 31 different grounds for exclusion were created (for example, a member of the communist party was denied admission).

After the Act of 1952, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was passed to further deter illegal immigration into the U.S.  The Act granted amnesty to individuals who lived in the U.S. continuously since 1982, created the I-9 employment verification form, and discontinued the distribution of Social Security cards to unauthorized workers.  The I-9 employment verification form is still in use today as a way to determine if a worker is in the United States legally and allowed to work.  If an employer knowingly hires an undocumented worker or incorrectly fills out an I-9 form, they can be fined and in some states lose their business license.

Currently, immigrant visas are still given out on a preference system.  The two categories for the preference system are family-based preference and employment-based preference.  The higher a preference granted to a person seeking admission, the greater the likelihood that their visa application will be processed and granted.  Family-based preference is based on the desire of the U.S. government to keep the nuclear family members together.  IRCA was the last significant piece of immigration reform passed by Congress.

Photo by: Joshua Nathanson