The Evolution of Immigration Laws: Historical Perspectives

Immigration laws have evolved significantly since the inception of the United States. To gain a better understanding of this evolution, let’s look at the key moments in U.S. immigration history.

In this article, we will examine the beginnings of U.S. immigration policy, its impact by World War II, and the immigration reforms in the 21st century

We’ll also take a look at the effects of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, protection for refugees and asylum-seekers, and recent immigration law changes

Finally, we’ll explore how immigration laws may look in the future. To start, let’s look at an introduction to immigration laws and how they have changed over time.


The Beginnings of U.S. Immigration Policy

The beginnings of U.S. Immigration Policy stretch back to the early days of the new United States. Early federal regulations were enacted to control the movement of noncitizens, to regulate ports and commerce, and to combat smuggling. Despite the fact that there was no national immigration policy at this time, immigration laws of some form did exist. The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the first general set of criteria for admitting immigrants to become naturalized citizens. This act mandated that white persons of good moral character could become citizens after two years of residence.
Since then, the government has changed immigration laws multiple times in order to accommodate changing needs, and to create a more cohesive and fair immigration system. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ushered in a new era for immigrants and stands widely regarded as one of the most significant pieces of immigration legislation in United States history.

Combined with other changes in policy, the 1965 Act resulted in a wave of new immigrants entering the U.S and shifted the focus from a national origin-based immigration system to a skills- and family-based immigration system. The laws that followed in subsequent decades would continue to shape America’s immigration policy.

Immigration in the Early 1900s

At the turn of the 20th century, Immigration Laws began to become more restrictive in the United States. This was largely due to the influx of foreign immigrants who had arrived in previous decades. The rise of xenophobia created positions in government that sought to control immigration. As a result, a series of new laws were passed that impacted foreign immigration for several decades. For example, the 1903 Naturalization Act prohibited any person not already of the Caucasian race from becoming citizens. The 1907 Expatriation Act extended this problem by allowing people of the Caucasian race to be depatriated if they chose to marry a foreigner. These early immigration laws helped set the stage for the more restrictive immigration laws that would come with the 1920s.
It became difficult for immigrants to enter the country, and those who did so were subject to rigorous scrutiny and regulations. Language tests and quotas were created in 1924. Despite these developments, the immigration laws of the early 1900s gave immigrants a right to file for asylum if they could prove persecution in their homeland. While these laws were restrictive, it was still possible for immigrants to get legal status via naturalization. Overall, the early 1900s saw the implementation of the first immigration laws in the United States and laid the groundwork for more restrictive laws to come.

World War II and Immigration

World War II presented an opportunity for the United States to liberalize immigration laws. This was especially true for refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Europe. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 allowed for the admission of 20,000 additional immigrants from non-quota countries as well as those fleeing political persecution, while the War Refugee Act of 1944 added another 25,000 individuals, for a total of 45,000 additional immigrants. Moreover, revised immigration laws in 1943 removed race, religion, and national origin as criteria for immigration, which allowed for the broadened acceptance of asylum seekers regardless of their country of origin. Furthermore, the liberalization of immigration laws saw the introduction of a point-based system for selecting applicants based on their skills and job qualifications.
This system provided a potential pathway for those with the desired skills to enter the country. Ultimately, World War II saw a moderation in U.S. immigration laws, rectifying some of the more extreme elements that had hindered individuals from entering the country during the interwar years.

Immigration laws have changed significantly since World War II. To learn more about how these laws have evolved, visit USCIS, the official website of the United States Customs and Immigration Services. There, you will find valuable information about immigration laws and other immigration-related topics.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, previously known as the Hart-Celler Act, disrupted the practice of giving preference to immigrants from Northern and Western European nations. Meaning, this legislation made it possible to assess immigration from all countries on a much more even basis, instead of prioritizing just those from Europe.  As such, it was groundbreaking as it dramatically changed the shape of American immigration over the following decades, allowing for the entry of more than 1 million Asians into the U.S. between 1965 and 1980. This act also abolished the national-origins quota system that had been in place since the 1920s, replacing it with a more comprehensive approach that weighed certain characteristics to determine an individual’s eligibility in order to gain entry. Immigration authorities considered such characteristics on an individual basis, taking into account one’s knowledge, skills, family relationships, and more.

In addition, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ensured that U.S. citizens would not face discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, or ancestry. This act effectively became the cornerstone of modern U.S. immigration laws, setting the stage for how immigration policies and regulations would shape America.

Protection for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers

The right to asylum is a fundamental provision in immigration law, and over the years the United States has been at the forefront of protecting refugees and asylum-seekers.

The US, under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, is committed to providing safe haven to individuals who can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Over the years, the US has made considerable progress in protecting the rights of asylum-seekers, introducing a variety of policies allowing refugees to apply for asylum from within the US, not just at a port of entry.

Additionally, the US government has implemented several programs aimed to assist and protect refugee populations, both at home and abroad, providing many with the opportunity to build a new life in safety and security.

Immigration Reforms in the 21st Century

Immigration reforms in the 21st century are part of a continuous evolution of U.S. immigration laws.

In the early 2000s, lawmakers passed laws providing non-citizens with residency rights, while other reforms implemented a stricter system of border control. In the wake of terrorist attacks, considerable effort has been invested in improving border security and combating fraud and illegal immigration. This has led to stricter visa requirements, tighter enforcement of existing laws, and other initiatives to ensure that individuals are entering the country legally. The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection play a major role in implementing these new reforms, which aim to protect national security and reduce illegal immigration.

Furthermore, the Obama Administration passed the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs to provide immigrant children with work authorization, temporary relief from deportation, and other protections.

This is one example of how policymakers constantly update immigration policies to provide more rights and better opportunities to both citizens and non-citizens.

Recent Immigration Law Changes

In recent years, much has changed when it comes to Immigration Law.

Like any policy, immigration laws have continued to evolve over time with policymakers implementing new legislation to emphasize certain aspects of the law. Notably, the Obama Administration implemented the DREAM and DACA Acts which allowed immigrant minors to apply for access to education, employment and social services they were previously unable to access. Additionally, the Supreme Court recently passed a law in 2024 that allows legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship in the United States, as well as making it easier for certain categories of people to access U.S. visas.

There has also been an emphasis on helping refugees and asylum seekers gain more protections. This means that Immigration Laws are more dynamic in nature, reflecting a changing, modern America.

Immigration Laws Moving Forward

As US immigration policies continue to evolve, it is important to look forward to the developments of immigration laws and practices. The iconic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 created groundbreaking reforms that changed the immigrant landscape in the US, setting the precedent for the direction of national immigration policies. Since then, multiple new updates and reforms have been made to better protect refugees and asylum-seekers. We have seen significant investments in programs that provide support, opportunities, and education. Other immigration reforms include increasing the number of visas issued to immigrants as well as the development of pathways to citizenship for those immigrants wishing to become lawful permanent residents.
It is evident that the future of immigration laws and policies remains a priority as we navigate these uncertain times. As we move forward, it is important to recognize the integral role immigration plays in our society and to ensure that we remain committed to creating a fair and just immigration system for all.

Immigration Laws – Conclusion

The conclusion of this historical look at immigration laws is this: immigration policy has undergone immense shifts and changes throughout the last 250 years, taking on a life of its own and challenging our preconceived notions of race, nationhood, and inclusion. Each era, from the colonial period until now, has contributed to the development of the complex system of immigration laws today. Economic, political, and humanitarian needs, as well as a desire to protect the basic human rights of immigrants and refugees, have shaped American immigration policies.

As immigration reform discussions continue today, it is important to remember the historical context from which these laws came.
Through this, we gain a better understanding of the system and how best to improve it moving forward.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article! If you’re interested in learning more about immigration laws, we recommend giving “Understanding Changes in Immigration Policies: Recent Updates” a read.

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