An Overview of U.S. Immigration Laws (1790-1990)

The immigration timeline is a summary of the Migration Policy Institute fact sheet, Major US Immigration Laws, 1790-1990, unless otherwise noted. The summary explains many of the laws that have become the major component of the United States’ immigration policy.  The Immigrant Tax Inquiry Group created much of it’s immigration reform model from the information presented here.

1790 The Naturalization Act

The first law for naturalization in the U.S. was enacted in the late 18th century. The requirements for citizenship? Free white person—live in the U.S. at least two years—have “good moral character”—and swear allegiance to the Constitution. Included were children under 21 of naturalized parents.

1798 The Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798 Congress passed laws ( that included a requirement that aliens reside in the U.S. fourteen years before becoming citizens, reserving the right to arrest and/or deport those considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” (which also included any citizen/subject of a country with which the U.S. was at war). Congress repealed these stipulations in 1802.

1864 Immigration Act 

The position of Commissioner of Immigration was created in 1864 and established outside (not in U.S.) immigrant contracts as enforceable.

1882 Immigration Act 

This act levied a tax of 50 cents each on persons who were non-citizens arriving by boat. The ships’ owners were to pay the taxes, which were then put in an “immigration fund” to be distributed by the Treasury Secretary for immigration expenses. Passengers were screened to make sure they were “desirable,” or they wouldn’t be allowed to land.

1888 Chinese Exclusion Act, 1888 Scott Act, Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States

Between 1882 and 1904, there were a number of laws that selectively kept the Chinese from coming to, or returning to, the U.S. —exceptions were those who were in the U.S. on or before November 17, 1880. And in 1891 it became a misdemeanor to aid anyone not legally allowed in the U.S. and a superintendent job in the Treasury Department was created.

1917 Immigration Act

An extension of the Chinese exclusion laws enacted in 1917 created an “Asiatic barred zone” limiting immigration from the extended zone of “British India, most of Southeast Asia, and almost all of the Middle East” to students and specific professionals and their families (spouses and children).

1921 Emergency Quota Act

“Admission quotas” based on nationality were first established in 1921. The limit was ” . . . 3 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality present in the United States as of the 1910 census.” Exemptions were citizens of Western Hemisphere countries, government officials and short-term visitors.

1924 National Origins Quota Act (the Johnson-Reed Act)

The quota limit was reduced to 2 percent in 1924. Again, students, particular professionals and families (spouses and children) of U.S. citizens were exempted.

1942 Bracero Agreement 

The agreement allowed Mexicans to come and work as agricultural laborers, temporarily—with equal pay, and expenses covered. Because the U.S. needed the laborers, the agreement was extended, with some variations, through 1964.

1942 Magnuson Act

Nineteen forty-two presented to be an active year for immigration reform. The sixty-year-old Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act allowing Chinese to become American citizens.

1945 War Brides Act

World War II generated the necessity that allowed those in the armed forces (honorably discharged or still serving) to bring home their spouses and children.

1948 Displaced Persons Act 

Immigration to the U.S. of 200,000 (plus an additional 15,000 already living in the U.S. as of April 1, 1948) was allowed after so many were driven from their homes by the Nazis. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 opened a path to citizenship.

1952 McCarren-Walter Act (Immigration & Nationality Act)

The act reduces several laws into one quota system (with new calculations) and included Asians as potential immigrants, and screenings for “inadmissible” persons.

1953 Refugee Relief Act 

Those fleeing persecution were the motivation for the Refugee Relief Act that authorized non-quota immigrants (up to 205,000) to come to the U.S.

1962 Migration and Refugee Assistance Act 

There was a big time gap between immigration laws.  It took the election of President John F. Kennedy before another law was signed. The 1962 policy assists those in the Western Hemisphere who were fleeing persecution—it was targeted to help Cubans flee from Communism.

1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

This act is also known as the Hart-Cellar Act.  It abolished the quota system and implemented a new system where “immigrants are admitted based on their relationship to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family member or U.S. employer.” There was no quota on the number of “immediate relatives” but the other two categories were capped. By 1968, there was also a cap of 120,000 on those from the Western Hemisphere, previously exempted.

1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act

The new policy expanded the 1962 similarly- named Act to include Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

1976 Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments 

Since the 1965 immigration act, Western Hemisphere immigrant professionals benefitted preferentially by not having to have a job offer here in the U.S. before being allowed a visa. The act changed this by adopting the requirements for professionals to enter the U.S. that were in the 1965 Act (see The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976: Implications for the Alien Professional-Beverly F. Harris, 1977).

1980 Refugee Act 

This act defines a ‘refugee’ as any person outside the person’s country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution . . .” This included people standing at the border. The Act instituted a new system for receiving and processing refugees.

1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act

Border security was boosted 50 percent and penalties for those hiring the undocumented were put in place by the Two programs were implemented that allowed 2.7 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.

1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act

“Aggravated felony” became justification for deportation in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

The trail has continues to blaze.  Immigrant Tax Group has a sensible approach to immigration reform—a reasonable solution that includes funding for our border security. Check back next week to learn how the trail blazed until just recently.  Click here to learn more about the Immigrant Tax Group model.

For a more detailed view of the laws, go to