A Chronology of US Immigration Law

A Chronology of US Immigration Law

Probably the most public discussion of work in the United States right now takes place in the context of debate over legal and illegal immigration. Congress is currently considering “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation, instigated in large part by President Bush. The various bills being debated and revised include provisions for conditional legal amnesty, fines, and deportation for illegal immigration, as well as “guest worker” programs, quotas on certain kinds of “highly skilled” workers, and new and tougher means of law enforcement. It is interesting to see how many of the same rationales for excluding prospective legal and illegal immigrants heard in the news today have been employed at different times past, depending on political and economic circumstances: racism dressed up as threats to “our culture” or “way of life,” risk of contagious disease, danger presented by terrorism or hostile ideologies, and threats to “American” jobs. Many of the same issues have also arisen: vigilantism, economic exceptions, design of guest worker programs, determination of quotas, and the status of English as an “official language.” It is important to note that a current trend in legislation turns away from the legal principle of determining eligibility for legal immigration according to one’s kinship with a person already legally residing in the US, a principle that was established in the 1960s, toward a “contractual” principle reminiscent of laws of the late 19th century, whereby preferential treatment was based on the type of skill one could sell. This political trend is like many in the US and around the world in the last couple of decades that explicitly favor capital and management over people simply seeking rewarding and dignified work (see “Immigration and ‘family values’ in this issue). The Timeline 1790 Naturalization Act (revised in 1795) specifies that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” The act of 1795 increases the residency requirement from 2 to 5 years in the US, and from 1 year to 2 years in the state of residence, and it establishes the oath of allegiance that is still required. 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts permit the President to deport any foreigner deemed to be dangerous. 1808 The importation of slaves into the United States is prohibited. 1831 Pennsylvania permits bilingual instruction in English and German in its public schools. 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluding the Mexican War, extends citizenship to approximately 80,000 Mexican residents of the US Southwest. 1865 The 14th Amendment to US Constitution grants former slaves citizenship and therefore, in theory, guarantees their children citizenship by naturalization. 1870 Naturalization Act of 1870 limits American citizenship to “white persons and persons of African descent,” excluding Asians from eligibility for US citizenship. 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is passed preventing persons of Chinese origin from immigrating to the US for a period of 10 years. It is promoted by politicians and demagogues causing alarm about the cultural and demographic “Yellow Peril” to the settled white population. Tens of thousand of Chinese have come to the US to work in the preceding three decades, starting with the California Gold Rush of 1849 and continuing with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The act is renewed in 1892 for another ten years and again in 1902 for an indefinite period. The Magnuson Act of 1943 repeals it. 1882 Immigration Act levies a tax of 50¢ on each immigrant and creates several categories of immigrants ineligible for entry into the US, including “lunatics” and people “likely to become public charges.” 1885–87 Alien Contract Labor Laws prohibit any company or person from bringing foreigners under contract to work into the US. The only exceptions are those who are brought to do domestic work and “skilled workers” who can establish some new trade or industry. 1901 Following President McKinley’s assassination by Leon Czolgosz, a second-generation Polish American, the Anarchist Exclusion Act is passed, which allows immigrants to be excluded on the basis of their political opinions. 1907 Immigration Act of 1907 reorganizes the states bordering Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico, and a large part of Texas) into the Mexican Border District with a Border Patrol, in order to stem the flow of immigrants into the US. Expatriation Act declares that an American woman who marries a foreign national loses her US citizenship. 1913 Alien Land Law in California prohibits South and East Asians from holding titles to property in that state. 1917 Immigration Act of 1917 requires proof of literacy. Strict passport requirements are introduced too. 1921 Emergency Quota Act (Johnson Quota Act) limits annual immigration from Europe to 3% of the population of a “nationality” represented in the US Census of 1910. This effectively discriminates against Eastern and Southern Europeans. 1922 Cable Act partially rescinds the Expatriation Act, but declares that an American woman who marries an Asian still loses her citizenship. 1923 The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind classifies “Indians” (South Asians) as “non-White” according to “common understanding.” The ruling helps the cause of politicians and demagogues who warn of the “Turban Tide” or “Hindoo Invasion,” cast in terms similar to the “Yellow Peril” of the 1880s (see above). Bhagat Singh Thind fought for the US in World War I, and he later became a professor of philosophy. 1924 Johnson–Reed Act introduces a more complex system of “national” quotas. It limits annual European immigration to 2% of population of a group given in the US Census of 1890 (20 years earlier than the standard for Emergency Quota Act; see above). The Johnson–Reed Act comprises the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act. The former prohibits most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and children of US citizens of Chinese descent. 1934 Tydings–McDuffie Act, which declares the “independence” of the Philippines on July 4, 1946, also strips Filipinos of their status as US nationals and severely restricts Filipino immigration by establishing an annual quota of 50 persons. 1940 Alien Registration Act required all aliens (non-US citizens) within the United States to register with the government and receive an Alien Registration Receipt Card (the predecessor to the famous “green card”). It requires the registration and fingerprinting of all aliens in the US over the age of 14. The act classifies Korean immigrants as subjects of the Japanese Empire. 1942 Filipinos are reclassified as US citizens, allowing them to be enlisted in the armed forces. Executive Order 9066 authorizes the military to evacuate 112,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast and place them in 10 concentration camps throughout the US. 1943 “Guest Worker” / Bracero Program established after negotiations between the US and Mexican governments. The Bracero Program, as such, ends in 1964. 1944 The Supreme Court upholds as constitutional the internment of Japanese Americans in The United States v. Korematsu. 1945 War Brides Act allows foreign-born wives of US citizens who had served in the US armed forces during World War II to enter the United States. The following year, this privilege is extended to fiancées. 1946 Luce–Celler Act ends discrimination against South Asians in particular, but it allows only small numbers of them into the country each year. 1948 Displaced Persons Act permits Europeans displaced by WW II to enter the US irrespective of immigration quotas. 1950 Internal Security Act renders the Alien Registration Receipt Card even more valuable. Immigrants with legal residency have their cards replaced with what has generally become known as the “green card” (Form I-151). The act excludes “communists” or persons who might engage in activities “which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or would endanger the welfare or safety of the United States.” 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran–Walter Act) revises the “national” quota system again. It limits total annual immigration to 1/6 of 1% of the population of the continental United States in 1920. The act exempts from quotas spouses and children of US citizens and people born in the Western Hemisphere. 1954 “Operation Wetback” organizes the US Border Patrol and local police forces, which are assisted by unofficial vigilante groups, for deporting Latin American immigrants or intimidating them into leaving. Some 80,000 are deported, and over 500,000 leave under duress. Some are deported simply for “looking Mexican,” and this number includes Latino and Native American citizens. One of the ships used to deport those rounded up to places far from US borders bears the name Emancipation. 1965 Nationality Act Amendments (Hart–Celler Act) abolishes system of quotas on national origin. However, it puts caps on Western Hemispheric v. Eastern Hemispheric immigration (120,000 v. 170,000). It introduces the current “family preference” standard into US immigration law 1968 Immigration Act of 1968 brings immigration law into line with lately passed US civil rights laws. It abolishes discrimination based on race, gender, and place of birth or residence. It also finally eliminates the remaining laws discriminating against East Asians 1976 Immigration Act of 1976 eliminates special treatment for residents of the Western Hemisphere 1980 Immigration Act of 1980 includes the Refugee Act, which redefines “refugee” in terms of United Nations standards. The annual refugee “target” is set at 50,000, while the upper limit for immigrants from around the world is reduced to 270,000 per year. 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) introduces penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. “Amnesty” is also granted for about 3,000,000 illegal immigrants. A “guest worker” program is expanded to include both agricultural and non-agricultural workers 1988 Redress Act provides $20,000 compensation to each survivor of the WW II internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans. 1990 Immigration Act of 1990 modifies and expands the act of 1965. It raises the annual limit to 700,000 persons and increases the issue of visas by 40%. It also establishes an annual limit for certain categories of immigrants. It is aimed at helping US businesses attract “skilled foreign workers” who can make “educational, professional, or financial contributions” to the US economy. It creates the Immigrant Investor Program. 1990 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act are followed by increase in both incarceration (including on death row) and deportation of illegal immigrants. 1994 California voters enact Proposition 187, later thrown out as unconstitutional by the courts, which prohibits the provision of public education and welfare services to undocumented aliens. 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act strengthens border enforcement and makes it more difficult for foreigners to gain asylum. The law establishes income requirements for sponsors of legal immigrants. With the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, Congress makes citizenship a condition of access to public benefits for most immigrants. 1997 Congress restores health and welfare benefits to some elderly and indigent immigrants who had previously legally received them. 1998 Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act and the Non-citizen Benefit Clarification and Other Technical Amendments Act restore additional public benefits to some immigrants. The American Competitiveness and Work force Improvement Act increases the number of skilled temporary foreign workers U.S. employers are allowed to bring into the country. 2001 USA Patriot Act, among other measures, reorganizes US immigration enforcement, replacing the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the US Department of Justice with the Citizenship and Immigration Services under the newly founded Department of Homeland Security. It also requires passports to be machine-readable. 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (S. 1438), sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and endorsed by Republican President Bush, is fiercely debated in Congress, both within and between political parties. (All information here is found in public records. See, for example, http://thomas.loc.gov on the Web.)

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