Over the past few weeks, I have seen the suggestion that we should revert our immigration policy to how it was in 1924. Now, having studied this era in some capacity, I immediately knew what they meant. Moreover, I wasn’t pleased. To bring everyone to the same page, I present a brief description of US Immigration and Naturalization law since the founding.
Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, a lawyer or legal expert of any kind. I am an avid history nerd, though.
Naturalization Act of 1790
The very beginning. Our first guidelines on who was considered a citizen. It should come to no surprise that it was race-related. The Act stipulates that naturalization was limited to immigrants who were “free white persons of good character.”
Naturalization Act of 1795
Overrode the previous Act and created a two-step naturalization process. Also modified the residency requirement for naturalization.
Naturalization Act of 1798
Increased residency requirements again. Part of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Repealed just four years later.
Alien Friends Act of 1798
Also a part of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Allowed the President to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous.
Alien Enemy Act of 1798
Allowed the President to imprison and deport non-citizens who were from hostile nations.
Naturalization Law of 1802
Reduced the residency requirement back to pre- 1798 levels. Clarified status of resident children and children born abroad. Directed the clerk of the court to record entry of all aliens coming into the United States.
Naturalization Act of 1870
Created a system of controls for the naturalization process. For the first time, Aliens of African nativity or ‘persons of African descent’ were eligible for naturalization.
Page Act of 1875
This was the first restrictive immigration law in the US and was the end of open borders. Effectively prohibited the entry of Chinese women. It barred immigrants who were considered “undesirable.” These were people from East Asia coming as forced labor, any East Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and anyone considered a convict in their native country.
Part of this Act is still in force today, as it enacted a policy of policing immigrants around sexuality which continues into the present.
Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
This Act prohibited all immigration of laborers from China. It also made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens and made them ineligible for citizenship. After this law passed, many communities in the west with large Chinese populations tried to “drive” them out by physically forcing them to flee. It wouldn’t be repealed until 1943.
Immigration Act of 1882
Imposed a head tax on any non-citizens who passed through American ports. Included new restrictions on who could immigrate, including those who were criminals, insane, or ‘any person unable to take care of him or herself.’ This last part, which included anyone ‘likely to become a public charge’ would be a key facet of immigration law moving forward and could consist of pregnant or single women, the disabled, the sick, or the poor.
Alien Contract Labor Law (1885)
Prohibited the importation of laborers under contract or agreement. It was considered virtually impossible to enforce.
Immigration Act of 1891
Built the framework for the bureaucracy of immigration we have today. Also extended the list of “undesirables” to include persons suffering from certain contagious diseases, felons, persons convicted of other crimes or misdemeanors, polygamists, or those who had someone else help pay their way over.
Geary Act (1892)
This Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act and added a requirement that all Chinese residents had to carry a resident permit. Failure to produce the permit when asked could result in deportation or a year’s hard labor. It also forbid Chinese immigrants from bearing witness in court or being eligible for bail in habeas corpus proceedings.
United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
This was a Supreme Court case that determined that a child of Chinese immigrants born on US soil was a US citizen. It became a landmark case for interpreting the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Immigration Act of 1903
This was also called the Anarchist Exclusion Act. It added four additional inadmissible classes: anarchists, epileptics, beggars, and importers of prostitutes. It was the first legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that allowed for questioning immigrants on their political beliefs.
Naturalization Act of 1906
For the first time, immigrants were required to learn English to become naturalized citizens. It also created the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization as well as standardizing naturalization forms.
Immigration Act of 1907
This law enumerated further groups of people who were barred from entering the country which included: idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, persons who have been insane within five years previous, paupers, people likely to become public charges, professional beggars, persons afflicted with tuberculosis or other contagious disease, or those certified as mentally or physically defective. Also created the US Congress Joint Immigration Commission.
Immigration Act of 1917
At this point, a literacy test was imposed on immigrants barring adults who could not read in their native language. It also precluded anyone from the Asia-Pacific zone from entering the country, as well as increasing the list of “undesirables” to include vagrants, political radicals, persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority, and others.
Immigration Act of 1918
This was also known as the Dillingham-Hardwick Act. It expanded and elaborated the brief definition from the Anarchist Exclusion Act to more clearly specify what an Anarchist was. It not only included anyone who espoused views of violently overthrowing the government as well as anyone associated with those people, including organization members or anyone paid to distribute anarchists materials. This would be an important distinction during the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920.
Emergency Quota Act (1921)
In the late 1910s, there was an upswell in the number of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and arriving on our shores. In an attempt to slow this influx, Congress enacted a quota system capping immigration from any country at 3 percent of the number of residents from that nation living in the US as of the 1910 census. However, this did not apply to Latin America (at the behest of Western farmers) or countries with existing bilateral agreements. It also did not apply to the Asia-Pacific countries outline din the Immigration Act of 1917, who were still entirely barred.
Immigration Act of 1924
The Immigration Act of 1924 came about because Congress felt it didn’t go far enough. By the 1910 census, there were already a considerable number of residents from “undesirable” nations or backgrounds. It lowered the cap to 2 percent of the number of residents from that country based on the 1890 census. It also set an overall limit of 165,000 immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere and barred immigrants from Asia, including Japan and the Philippines. It also created the visa system and formed the US Border Patrol.
Equal Nationality Act of 1934
Allowed foreign-born children of American mothers and alien fathers who had entered the country before the age of 18 and lived here for at least five years the ability to apply for citizenship.
Nationality Act of 1940
This Act clarified who was eligible for US citizenship, mostly dealing with native-born citizenship. The main takeaway was that only white people, those of African descent, and Native American scan be naturalized citizens (and Filipinos who served in the Armed Forces).
Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943
Allowed Chinese immigration for the first time since 1882 and allowed Chinese residents to become naturalized citizenship. However, it did nothing to reverse the ban against the ownership of property by ethnic Chinese.
Immigration and Nationality Act (1952)
Abolished racial restriction on immigration but retained a quota system by country.
Kwong Hai Chew v. Colding (1953)
Supreme Court case that stated that resident aliens are still protected by the Constitution.
Operation Wetback (1954)
This was an INS round up and deportation of illegal immigrants, specifically from Mexico and Central America. Although Border Patrol reported 1.3 million people were deported or left voluntarily, those numbers were difficult if not impossible to verify.
INA Amendments (1965)
These laws repealed national-origin quotas and initiated a visa system for family reunification. This prioritized immigrants who already had family in the US.
Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act (1966)
In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, this Act gave Cuban nationals legal status.
Plyler v. Doe (1982)
A Supreme Court case which specified that illegal immigrants are afforded 14th amendment rights to equal protection.
Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986)
This Act enacted sanctions for anyone who knowingly hired illegal aliens. However, it also provided amnesty for illegal aliens already living in the US.
Immigration Act (1990)
This Act increased legal immigration ceilings, created a lottery system for low-admittance countries, and eliminated exclusion based on homosexuality.
United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990)
In a case that seems to contradict previous rulings, the Supreme Court ruled that Fourth Amendment rights of search and seizure do not apply to US agents in regards to property owned by a nonresident alien.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
For this law, access to welfare benefits became more difficult for legal aliens to access, and it increased border enforcement.
Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (2002)
In the aftermath of 9/11, this Act moved immigration function under the Department of Homeland Security, required agencies to share information, and outlined specific regulations on handling child immigrants.
REAL ID Act (2005)
For anyone who has been forced to get a new driver’s license to board an airplane, you will be familiar with this Act. However, the parts of it relevant to the topic are that it added more restrictions on what is considered political asylum and curtained habeas corpus relief for immigrants.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (2012)
Also initialized as DACA, this law allowed children who were brought to the US illegally by their parents to defer legal actions against them (such as deportation) and gave them work authorizations.
For better or for worse, immigration policy in the United States has nearly always been racist. However, what makes the Immigration Act of 1924 stand out is the earnest and unabashed preference for Nordic, white Europeans over all other groups of people. It purposely chose skewed data to create a “logic” that would prevent the migration of people they considered lesser or inferior.
President Donald Trump once commented that he wanted more immigrants from Norway (as opposed to “shithole” countries, his alleged words). I’m sure many of his fellow politicians share this view and immigration law that would encourage migration from Sweden, Norway, Germany, UK, or France and discourage it from places like Nigeria, Malaysia, or Guatemala appeals to this worldview.
To understand why this idea is so pernicious and dangerous, we must note how the 1924 immigration bill came about. This was a period of history we don’t like to talk about as Americans. The country was swept with a passionate fury in a belief that came to be associated with our darkest times: eugenics. At some other time, I will get more into American’s deep entanglement with race science, but for now, it is important to note that many high-level figures in government in this era were all-in on eugenics.
The Dillingham Commission was put together to study the “immigration problem,” which was mostly concerned with the large numbers of Jewish and Eastern European immigrants arriving at our shores. The Commission issued a report which became the basis for the Immigration Act of 1924. Whereas the previous immigration act had limited immigration based on population numbers in 1910, the new Act stripped it back to 1890, a period when the types of immigrants coming to America were vastly different. In the aftermath of World War I and the Russian revolution, the characteristics of incoming immigrants had changed too much, according to elected officials.
These types of immigrants, poorer and darker than their predecessors, were portrayed as diseased and criminal. They were suspected of only coming here to suck on the teat of government resources, providing nothing in return. (A talking point frequent viewers of Fox News may recognize as still being trotted out today.)
It isn’t hard for me to understand why these ideas are coming back into popularity. With the rise of antisemitism and white supremacy, it was only a matter of time before eugenics reappeared. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t challenge it’s inherent racism and junk science when confronted with it.
Immigration has absolutely and undeniably changed this country. And it will continue to do so in the future. However, I would argue that it makes us better. Without immigrants, we wouldn’t be who we are today. Most of us can trace our lineage back to ancestors who left their homelands to seek a better life in the United States.