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Immigration Policies of the United States - A brief History

Updated on November 14, 2017
Patrick Patrick profile image

Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years



In the beginning

Essentially, the United States was built by immigrants, who sought to make a new life in a new land. In this case therefore, before the 1880s, almost anyone could move in to the United States. Immigration would only start to be controlled once the population began to grow. While the first Europeans from Britain arrived in America to avoid persecution, own lands, and work on agriculture etc, more would gradually follow for the same reason followed by the Dutch, Swedish and Germans. This was encouraged given that it was viewed as a means of getting the settlements to grow and become established. However, from the 1640s, African involuntary immigration began, where slaves from mostly West Africa were brought to work on plantations. In this case therefore, the attitude towards immigration and immigrants was positive (except in with Africans, who served as slaves) given that the existing population was still small, and immigration would allow for growth and development. Although England had earlier seized land from the Swedes, it is important to note that various other Europeans such as the Portuguese, Germans and Poles among a few others had established settlements in these colonies. For some of these Europeans however, particularly the Germans, they would have to work to serve their masters for a number of years before they could be given land. On the other hand, immigration regulations used criminal conduct, which was aimed at defining and excluding those regarded to as the undesirables.


America vs Britain

Following the American Revolution, various states felt that there was a need to prevent Britain and other nations from exporting their convicts to the states. By 1788, a resolution from Congress was passed, prompting various states to pass laws that would prevent the transportation of convicted individuals in to the United States. As a result, such States as Virginia and Pennsylvania started to prohibit those convicted of any crime. By 1875, such Acts as the Act of March 3, 1875 were in place, barring the administration of those who were still undergoing sentences for convictions in their own countries or even those whose sentence would be remitted on condition that they emigrated. While the States only mostly complained at first with no real changes, these policies brought about real changes, and were impactful. These laws were aimed at ensuring that other nations did not send criminals to the various States, who would only make progress for these States more difficult. On the other hand, this was also meant to show Britain that the United States was not independent and would not longer bend to any influence.

From 1875, a number of laws had started being enacted creating restrictions on immigration. While a number of laws had been passed earlier (1862 and 69) to regulate Chinese labor (this was meant to deal with cheap Chinese labor), the Act of 1875 was implemented and outlawed the importation of women for prostitution purposes as well as prohibiting other alien convicts. In 1882, another immigration law was passed by Congress, imposing a federal tax (50 cents) on every passenger that arrived from foreign countries. This was also aimed at controlling the numbers of those who entered the United States. This law also prohibited convicts, lunatics and other people with contagious diseases from entering the States. In particular, in 1981, Congress passed another law to deal with the influx of immigrants. This law prohibited various people such as polygamists, those who did not pay for their own tickets, those in America from helping others to enter the States among others from making entry in to the United States. This was meant to strengthen previous laws, and limit the number of those who came to the country. While other laws were passed in the 1920s to limit the number of those who could enter the country, mostly favoring those from northern and Western Europe, it was in 1965 that various political, social and geographical factor influenced the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows skilled immigrants in to the country and family reunification. This therefore allowed families to reunite with other members of their families in the United States as well as skilled immigrants to immigrate in to the United States

By the mid 80s, America had experienced a great influx of Chinese laborers. And by the late 1860s, they had entered in to various occupations. However, this resulted in negative attitudes towards them given that they had caused wage rates to fall where they settled. It is for this reason, among others that laws began to be implemented to deal with the influx of Cheap Chinese laborers in the States. For instance, while the California legislature of 1855 imposed a head tax of $55 on each Chinese immigrant, in San Francisco, a laundry ordinance was passed, imposing a license fee of $15 per quarter on laundries that did not use a vehicle. Between the mid 1800s and the late 1800s, various political contentions between various states and Congress and between the United States and other countries like China resulted in the Act of 1904, which extended limitation laws on Chinese exclusion. Similar issues were raised against Japanese workers in such states as California, resulting in regulations. Between 1921 and 1965, a number of laws were also passed, regulating how and which people could enter the United States. For instance, in 1933, an executive order 6166 was combined with the Immigration Service and the Naturalization Bureau, forming the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In addition, Congress in 1945 passed the Displaced Persons Act, for refugees as well as the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 for the same (allowing those who were freeing from conflicts refuge). Others during this period included the Hungarian Refugee Act of 1956 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which granted those from war torn nations refuge as well as an opportunity to register as Americans.
In the 1960s, national origins system was replaced with the preference system b congress, which not only allowed for immigrants to reunite with their families, but also to attract skilled immigrants in to the country. This resulted in increased number of Asians in the country with as many as 8 million immigrants coming from Asia. By the late 1980s, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was also passed, allowing illegal immigrants since 1982 to apply for legal status while prohibiting employers from hiring those who were still regarded to as illegal aliens. In 1990, the Immigration Act placed a cap of 700,000 immigrants allowed in to the country annually for three years, which would be followed by 675,000 annually after the three year period. By 2001, as a result of the terrorist attack that occurred on the 11th of September the same year, changes in the structure of immigration agencies began in order to protect the country from such attacks in the future of the United States.



From the four historical periods, it becomes evident that there are a number of factors that influence how immigration policies are made and implemented. These include among others, employment opportunities, security issues, and relationships between countries. From this, it becomes clear why such countries as the United States of America have strict laws concerning immigration and who can enter the country. As the world increasingly becomes a global village through such technologies as information communication, it is more likely that the immigration policy of the country will soften, increasingly allowing for such things as dual citizenship in addition to accommodating more skilled individuals into the country to ensure its continued growth and development. With many more countries drastically growing economically, the United States will need to improve on its immigration policies in order to develop better relationships with other nations, ultimately benefiting from the same. However, this will also involve strict measures to ensure that the country is kept safe from any forms of attack towards its people, both physically and economically.

The current immigration policy of the United States is founded on four main pillars. These includes pillars related to assisting refugees, allowing for family reunions, accepting skilled workers (as well as manual laborers) (this group includes entrepreneurs investors and the self- employed) as well as temporary residents, which may include those with work visas, students and visitors.
Currently, the potentially temporary ban on immigrants from a number of Muslim nations is highly likely to affect various groups, including students, skilled individuals, and immigrant parents of Americans as well as immigrants with criminal convictions. According to Trump’s orders, those who have been charged with crimes may end up being deported whether or not they have been convicted. In addition, immigrants who have qualified for Deferred Action for Parents program that was announced by the Obama administration are also likely to be deported or in the event they have not yet gone to the United States, be denied the opportunity to do because they come from a list of banned countries. Despite the fact that the immigration policy of the country allowed for refugees, current proposals will significantly affect Syrian refugees from entering the country. This will also affect refugees from the seven more countries in the next several months despite their dire situation (about four months). In addition, the president reduced the number of refugees who will be allowed in to the country, which further contradicts the pillars of American immigration policy with the new proposed screening procedures that may come into effects. From these changes, it is more likely that we will see new dynamics with regards to how the country interacts and engages with other nations across the globe.


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