1789 (ratified): US Constitution. Article I, section 8 gives Congress the power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” Article I, section 9 says that prior to 1808 Congress may not prohibit the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit”–implying that Congress can control immigration policy and the importation of slaves starting in 1808. Section 9 also guarantees habeas corpus, the right to challenge a person’s imprisonment; nothing in the text limits this right to citizens.
1790: Naturalization Act of 1790. Establishes that “any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen” if “he is a person of good character.”
1791 (ratified): First 10 amendments to the Constitution (“Bill of Rights”). Guarantee basic rights of freedom of religion and of speech, the right to protest, the right to freedom from unreasonable searches, and the right to due process, including the right to remain silent. Nothing in the text limits these rights to citizens; several rights are specifically guaranteed to “the people” or a “person.”
1795: Naturalization Act of 1795. Increases the residency requirement to five years and requires renunciation of “allegiance and fidelity” to any other country.
1807: Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves. Congress’s first use of its authority to regulate immigration and the importation of persons. Bans importing “any negro, mulatto or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of…as a slave, or to be held in service or labour” as of January 1, 1808.
1848: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Gives US control over Texas, California, and the southwestern states; allows the more than 100,000 people living there who identify as Mexicans the option of choosing US citizenship (Article 9); the more than 200,000 Native Americans in the territory are described as members of “savage tribes…under the exclusive control of the government of the United States” (Article 11).
1868 (ratified): 14th Amendment. Establishes that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” No state is allowed to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
1870: Naturalization Act of 1870. Extends naturalization law to cover “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent”; Asians and other people of color are not mentioned and so remain excluded from naturalization under the 1790 and 1795 laws.
1875: Immigration Act of 1875. The first immigration law to bar certain groups of people from entering the US. It prohibits the importation of Chinese laborers without their consent and the importation “of women for the purposes of prostitution.” The unstated purpose was to prevent single Chinese women from immigrating and marrying Chinese men already in the US, since their US-born children would have been citizens under the 14th amendment.
1882: Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Excludes all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States for 10 years. It is renewed in 1892 for another 10 years, and in 1902 it is renewed without a time limit.
1882: Immigration Act of 1882. Imposes a 50 cents tax on foreigners entering at US ports and denies entry to “convicts (except those convicted of political offences), lunatics, idiots and persons likely to become public charges.”
1889: Supreme Court decision in Chae Chan Ping v. US (“Chinese Exclusion Case”). The ruling establishes that Congress can restrict immigration or deport immigrants because of a nation’s “duty” to “preserve its independence and give security against foreign aggression and encroachment” by a foreign nation, “whether from the foreign nation acting in its national character or from vast hordes of its people crowding in upon us.”
1907: Expatriation Act of 1907. For the first time defines the citizenship of women married to foreigners. Women assume the citizenship of their husbands, and a woman with US citizenship forfeits it if she marries a foreigner, unless he becomes naturalized. Repealed by the Married Women’s Act of 1922 (“Cable Act”).
1913: California’s Alien Land Law prohibits “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning property in the state. This law was aimed principally at Asians.
1917: Immigration Act of 1917 (“Asiatic Barred Zone Act”). Denies entry to immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone”–much of eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands. It also sets a literacy requirement for immigrants over 16 and a head tax for entry into the country; it bars entry by “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” “epileptics,” “insane persons,” alcoholics, “professional beggars,” all persons “mentally or physically defective,” polygamists, and anarchists.
1917: Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 (“Jones Act”). Extends US citizenship to all citizens of Puerto Rico.
1921: Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Limits immigration to a total of about 350,000 a year, with no more from each country than three percent of the number of immigrants from that country living in the US in 1910. This is intended to freeze immigration from Eastern or Southern Europe at the 1910 level.
1922: Supreme Court decision in Ozawa v. United States. Upholds government’s power to deny naturalization to an Asian immigrant under the 1790 and 1795 laws.
1924: Immigration Act of 1924 (“National Origins Act,” “Johnson-Reed Act”). Limits immigration to a total of about 165,000 a year through 1928, with no more from each country than two percent of the number of immigrants from that country living in the US in 1890. Prohibits most immigration of people who are “ineligible to citizenship”–principally Asians. There is no limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, although legal immigration is restricted by entry requirements, such as head taxes and literacy requirements.
1924: The Border Patrol is established. The government recruits 450 people, mostly chosen from a list of applicants for jobs as federal railway postal clerks, to patrol the 1,950-mile border.
1929: National Origins Formula. As provided for in the 1924 law, this establishes a permanent quota system. It reduces the number of immigrants to 150,000, and sets quotas based on the ratio of national origin of all US residents as of 1920. This tightens the limits on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe even more than the 1924 law, since in 1920 US residents of Northern European origin greatly outnumbered those of Eastern or Southern European origin.
1934: Tydings-McDuffe Act. Grants the Philippines independence from the US on July 4, 1946, but ends the extension of US nationality to Filipinos and severely restricts Filipino immigration to the US.
1940: The Alien Registration Act of 1940 (“Smith Act”). Requires the registration and fingerprinting of all aliens in the US over the age of 14; bans “subversive acts” such as advocating the overthrow of the US government.
1943: Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943 (“Magnuson Act”). Extends naturalization law to cover Chinese immigrants and ends their exclusion, but limits entry to 105 Chinese a year.
1948: Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Allows the entry of about 200,000 refugees from Europe without regard to the quota system.
1952: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA, “McCarran-Walter Act”). This is the first comprehensive law covering immigration and naturalization; it ends all racial restrictions on naturalization but maintains the quota system from 1924 and increases the government’s power to exclude or deport immigrants suspected of Communist sympathies.
1954: Supreme Court decision in Galvan v. Press. Upholds power of Congress to deport immigrants because of past membership, however brief, in the Communist Party.
1965: Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (“Hart-Celler Act”). End all quotas based on national origin; replace them with a system of preferences, some based on family relations to US residents, some on labor qualifications. Includes the first formal restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Total immigration is limited to 170,000 year for the Eastern Hemisphere; a 120,000 annual limit is set for the Americas, to start in 1968.
1966: Cuban Adjustment Act. Allows Cuban immigrants to apply for permanent resident status after two years in the US, even if they entered illegally. (The two-year wait was reduced to one year in 1980.)
1980: Refugee Act of 1980. Distinguishes refugees (people who apply for refugee status from another country and come to the US if they are accepted) from asylum seekers (people who enter the US and then apply for asylum). Allows acceptance of about 90,000 refugees and 5,000 asylum seekers.
1982: Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe. Strikes down a Texas law denying public funding for the education of undocumented immigrants. Decision is based on the “equal protection of the laws” requirement of the 14th Amendment; notes that undocumented children are not responsible for their immigration status.
1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Allows undocumented immigrants who had been in the US before 1982 to apply for legal residence; same provisions for people who had worked 90 days in agriculture in the year ending May 1, 1986; establishes penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrants and requires employers to obtain proof of work eligibility from all new hires; establishes “diversity visas” for countries with low immigration levels (also known as the “visa lottery”) for 1987 and 1988.
1990: Immigration Act of 1990. Modifies numbers of immigrants admitted (worldwide and by country); modifies asylum requirements and family preference requirements; makes the visa lottery permanent; creates a new visa category for millionaire investors.
1994: “Proposition 187.” California voters approve a state referendum mandating laws against the use of false immigration documents and cutting off state funding for all “public social services,” “publicly funded health care,” and public education (including elementary and secondary education) for undocumented immigrants. Teachers and health workers would be required to turn in students and parents suspected of being undocumented. Federal courts struck down parts–notably those affecting education, which violated the 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, and health care.
1996: Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Allows exclusion or deportation of foreigners supporting organizations that the president designates as terrorist.
1996: Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). Cuts filing deadline for asylum cases to one year; allows immigration officers to deny entry to asylum applicants; drastically increases the number of crimes for which a legal resident can be deported; requires detention for immigrants convicted of certain crimes; requires expansion of the Border Patrol.
1996: Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Drastically reduces public assistance for lawful permanent residents who entered the US after August 1996, including food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid; bars federal welfare funding for undocumented immigrants.
1997: Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA). Allows Nicaraguans and Cubans to apply for permanent residence; gives some out-of-status Guatemalans, Salvadorans and former Soviet bloc nationals a chance to seek suspension of deportation.
1998: Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA). Allows nearly 50,000 Haitians to seek permanent residence under a process similar to that granted to Cubans and Nicaraguans under NACARA.
1999: Supreme Court decision in ADC v. Reno (“LA Eight”). Rules that immigrants can be deported based on their political affiliations and don’t have the right to challenge such selective targeting in federal court.
2001: Supreme Court decision in Zadvydas v. Davis. Holds that immigrants cannot be detained indefinitely if they are deemed deportable but have no country to return to; rules that detention in these cases generally should not exceed six months. This decision overturns the 1953 Shaughnessy v. US ex Rel. Mezei decisions.
2005: Supreme Court decision in consolidated cases of Clark v. Martinez and Benitez v. Rozos. Extends Zadvydas to “inadmissible” detainees; the plaintiffs are Cubans who came to the US in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
2005: REAL ID Act of 2005. Increases restrictions on political asylum, sharply reduces habeas corpus relief for immigrants, increases immigration enforcement, alters judicial review, imposes federal restrictions on the issuance of state driver’s licenses.
2006: Secure Fence Act of 2006. Authorizes the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the US-Mexico border.
Reference: The Politics of Immigration