In 1882—106 years after the United States declared independence—the United States placed its first major restrictions on immigration to the new country. Chinese workers had flocked to the U.S. during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), and as the gold decreased, animosity toward immigrants—especially the Chinese—increased. President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prohibit all Chinese laborers from entering the country, and by 1917, the ban had expanded to include nearly all Asians. Also barred were illiterate and impoverished people, some radicals, and people with certain disabilities and diseases. Despite the ban, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1920 in what historians call the “Great Wave.”
American fears about the Bolshevik Revolution fueled immigration concerns on the home front; many expected a flood of European immigration. Of particular concern were the numbers of Catholics and Jews entering the country. In response to these fears, the House of Representatives passed a 14-month suspension of immigration in 1920, a bill that was ultimately replaced by immigration quotas. Three groups were exempt from the quotas: children of U.S. citizens, wives of U.S. citizens, and immigrants from nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Revisions to the 1920 bill were made in 1924, functionally barring Japanese immigrants (who had not previously been highlighted as being ineligible for citizenship) from legal immigration. Immigrants from other Asian countries—Asia being defined by longitudinal coordinates that excluded Japan—had been banned from citizenship since 1870, when Congress passed a law allowing only “white persons” and people “of African descent” to become citizens.
In 1943, in recognition of China’s WWII ally status, Congress struck down the laws barring Chinese immigration and afforded Chinese immigrants the potential right to citizenship. Three years later, a similar act granted citizenship rights to Filipinos and Indians, and in 1952, all references to race or ethnicity were stricken from immigration laws in the United States, and the country began focusing more on welcoming refugees after 1952, but race nevertheless remained a factor in immigration decisions. The country’s track record on the issue took a serious blow in the years immediately prior to WWII when the United States Congress refused to pass a bill admitting 20,000 German children to the U.S.; nearly all of the children would have been Jewish. Furthermore, after the war ended, Congress passed a bill admitting some of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been displaced by the war—but only after two years, and with restrictions that made it difficult for Catholics and Jews to enter the country.
In the months leading up to the largest immigration reform bill in the modern era—the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—neither President Truman nor members of Congress foresaw that the bill would much alter immigration in practice. Following his advisors’ lead, Truman remarked that the Act “would continue, practically without change, the national origins quota system.” The bill, however, would change the face of American immigration for decades to come.
Source: IIP Digital, “Intended and unintended consequences of the 20th Century,”
Source: Center for Immigration Studies, “Historical Overview of Immigration Policy,”