IMMIGRATION REFORM IN THE U.S.
The Golden Venture passengers survived hurricanes around the Horn of Africa and a horrific 14,000-mile voyage in the hold of a small freighter -- only to be tossed on the waves of another kind of storm in the US, the choppy seas of America’s fractious immigration policies.
They had the bad luck to arrive during a recession, amid heightened terrorism fears after the first World Trade Center bombing. The tide of anti-immigrant sentiment of 1992-93 led up to a wave of immigration reform legislation in 1996, passed while many of the passengers were still being detained by the INS. A half decade later, about 30 passengers still struggled to obtained permanent legal residence in the US, a prospect made much more difficult by a renewed surge of anti-immigrant opinion and stalled efforts at immigratin reoform.
Here, in brief, is a history of immigration reform in the U.S., from its early days of welcoming the masses, to the new order of surveillance drones and border fences:
Timeline of U.S. Immigration Policy
1790 First U.S. Naturalization Rule
The federal government adopted the first naturalization rule for immigrants wishing to be citizens, requiring them to live in the U.S. for two years.
1808 Slave Ban
Congress banned the importation of African slaves.
1819 First Reporting Rule
Reporting rule was adopted, when data began to be collected on immigration into the United States. Ship captains and others are required to keep and submit manifests of immigrants entering the country.
1864 First Contract Laborers Allowed
Congress legalizes the importation of contract laborers.
Immigration Act of 1875
This was America’s first exclusionary act on immigration. Convicts, prostitutes, and Chinese indentured servants were barred from entry into the United States.
1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
This was the first time the U.S. had closed the door on a nationality, denying entry to Chinese laborers. This was partly because many had arrived during the California Gold Rush and to work on the Trans National Railroad, and when both ran their course and jobs were scarce, the Chinese were seen as unfair competition for working at low wages.
But ex-convicts, lunatics, idiots, and those unable to take care of themselves were excluded also. In addition, a tax is levied on newly arriving immigrants.
1885 Contract Laborers Barred
Contract laborers' entry was barred. This new legislation reversed an earlier federal law legalizing the trade in contract labor.
1891 Office of Immigration Created
The Office of Immigration (the precursor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service) was created as part of the U.S. Treasury Dept. and later given authority over naturalization and moved to the U.S. Justice Department.
In the same year, paupers, polygamists, the insane, and persons with contagious diseases are excluded from entry to the United States.
1892 Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States (or the Geary Act)
This allowed Chinese laborers to travel to China and reenter the United States, but its provisions were more restrictive than preceding immigration laws, requiring Chinese to register and secure certificates as proof of their right to be in the United States. Imprisonment or deportations were penalties.
This is the same year that Ellis Island was opened to process immigrants coming in through New York.. Between 1892 and 1953, more than 12 million immigrants would be processed here.
1903 and 1907 More Exclusions
Additional categories of persons were excluded in 1903: epileptics, professional beggars, and anarchists. In 1907, the groups to be excluded increased with the addition of “imbeciles,” the feeble-minded, tuberculars, persons with physical or mental defects, and persons under age 16.
1907 "Gentleman's agreement" between United States and Japan.
An informal arrangement curtailed Japanese immigration to the United States, with Japan stopping the issuance of passports to laborers hoping to go to America, and with the U.S. agreeing not to officially prohibit Japanese immigration. This was in reaction to an influx of Japanese farming immigrants in California whose success threatened other Californian laborers. Also, the tax on new immigrants is increased.
1910 Angel Island Opened
Although known as both the “Ellis Island of the West” and “Guardian of the Western Gate,” the latter term was probably more accurate as Angel Island served to stem the flow of Asian immigrants into the country from 1910 to 1940.
1913 California’s Alien Land Law
This targeted Japanese immigrants in California by ruling that aliens “ineligible to citizenship” were ineligible to own agricultural property.
1917 Literacy Tests
Literacy tests were introduced for all immigrants 16 years of age or older. They had to demonstrate the ability to read a 40-word passage in their native language. This had the effect of banning virtually all Asian immigrants were banned from entry into the United States.
1921 Quota Act
An annual immigration ceiling was set at 350,000. Moreover, a new nationality quota was instituted, which limited admissions to 3 percent of each nationality group's representation in the 1910 U.S. Census. The law was designed primarily to restrict the flow of immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe.
1924 Immigration Act
This restrictive legislation closed the door on Asians, excluding all classes of Chinese immigrants and extending restrictions to other Asian immigrant groups, until these restrictions were relaxed in the middle of the 20th century.
This included the National Origins Act which reduced the annual immigration ceiling to 165,000. A revised quota reduced admissions to 2 percent of each nationality group's representation in the 1890 census, thereby eliminating Far East immigration.
This is also the year the U.S. Border Patrol is created, as is the term “illegal alien.”
1927 Immigration Ceiling Further Reduced
The annual immigration ceiling is further reduced to 150,000; the quota was revised to 2 percent of each nationality's representation in the 1920 census. This basic law remained in effect through 1965.
1929 National Origins Act
The annual immigration ceiling of 150,000 was made permanent by Congress, with 70 percent of admissions slated for those coming from northern and western Europe, while the other 30 percent were reserved for those coming from southern and eastern Europe.
1942 Bracero Program
Facing a severe domestic labor shortage, Congress allowed for the importation of agricultural workers from within North, Central, and South America. The Bracero Program was started to allow Mexican laborers to work in the U.S.
1943 Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts (The Magnuson Act of 1943)
During World War II, because China joined the Allied powers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts, also known as the Magnuson Act. This Act of December 13, 1943, also lifted restrictions on naturalization and allowed Chinese to be considered as American citizens. It was enacted primarily to smooth relations between the U.S. and its important World War II ally China, and in response to Japanese propaganda focusing on anti-Chinese discrimination in the U.S. It also created an annual quota of 105 visas to Chinese immigrants, in order to control their welcome. However, until the Immigration Act of October 1965, numerous laws continued to have a restrictive impact on Chinese immigration.
1945 The War Bride Act and the G.I. Fiancées Act
This act allowed the immigration of foreign-born wives, fiancées, husbands, and children of U.S. armed forces personnel.
1948 Displaced Persons Act
Entry was allowed for 400,000 persons displaced by World War II and fleeing persecution. However, refugees were required to pass a security check and have proof of employment and housing.
1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (or the McCarran-Walters Act)
This act ended Asian exclusion, introduced a system of preferences based on skill sets and family reunification, and eliminated laws preventing Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens. It also outlined deportation procedures and politically based criteria for entry (immigrants and visitors could be barred from entry because of their political ideology, e.g. if they were Communists or former Nazis).
The Act has been amended many times over the years, but is still the basic body of immigration law.
1965 Immigration Act Amendment
Changed the way the U.S. counted its immigrant population. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before, and eliminated the old quota system that gave preference to western Europeans. Nationality quotas were abolished. However, the Act establishes an overall ceiling of 170,000 on immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere and another ceiling of 120,000 on immigration from the Western Hemisphere.
1978 Immigration Ceiling
World-wide immigration ceiling introduced. A new annual immigration ceiling of 290,000 replaced the separate ceilings for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
1980 Refugee Act
A system was developed to handle refugees as a class separate from other immigrants. Under the new law, refugees were defined as those who flee a country because of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion." The president, in consultation with Congress, was authorized to establish an annual ceiling on the number of refugees who may enter the United States. The president also was allowed to admit any group of refugees in an emergency. At the same time, the annual ceiling on traditional immigration was lowered to 270,000.
1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
Ronald Reagan signed this act granting amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal aliens who were able to prove continuous residence in the United States since January 1,1982. The annual immigration ceiling was raised to 540,000. Stiff sanctions were introduced for employers of illegal aliens (never actually enforced).
1990 Immigration Act of 1990
The annual immigration ceiling was further raised to 700,000 for 1992, 1993,and 1994; thereafter, the ceiling would drop to 675,000 a year. Ten thousand permanent resident visas were offered to those immigrants agreeing to invest at least $1 million in U.S. urban areas or $500,000 in U.S. rural areas. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 was amended so that people can no longer be denied admittance to the United States on the basis of their beliefs, statements, or associations.
1993 Golden Venture Runs Aground
The Golden Venture, carrying 286 Chinese immigrants, runs aground off the coast of Queens. The newly elected Clinton administration, fearful that this may spark similar flows of immigrants, orders them transported to detention centers in local jails -- the vast majority to York County, PA.
1996 Immigration Acts
This was a very busy year for immigration reform, stemming primarily from fears from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and also the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act
President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which made deportation mandatory for all legal permanent residents sentenced to a year or more for “aggravated felonies,” “moral turpitude” or controlled substances. This act, along with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, made deportation of legal non-residents much faster and more frequent by considering increasingly minor criminal offenses automatically deportable.
This act also doubled the U.S. Border Patrol to 10,000 agents over five years and mandated the construction of fences at the most heavily trafficked areas of the U.S.-Mexico border. Congress also approved a pilot program to check the immigration status of job applicants.
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that cut many social programs and benefits for immigrants. Legal immigrants lost their right to food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (a program for older, blind, and disabled people). Illegal immigrants became ineligible for virtually all federal and state benefits except emergency medical care, immunization programs, and disaster relief.
Human Rights Restoration Act of 1996
Congress passed legislation authored by Chris Smith (R-NJ) granting political asylum to a maximum of 1,000 people who could prove their home countries forced abortions or sterilizations as a result of population control programs. But the burden of proof is high and the State Department has denied many claims.
The immigration courts have further refined policy in regard to asylum claims based on population control. In 1997, the Board of Immigration Appeals concluded that a husband could prove he had been persecuted if his wife had been forced to have an abortion or undergo sterilization. However, a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July of 2007 found that U.S. law does not automatically grant asylum to spouses or partners in cases in which the women have been persecuted under China's family-planning policy, which limits most urban couples to one child.
1997 Golden Venture Presidential Pardon
President Clinton pardons 53 Golden Venture survivors after they had been in jail for 42 months, but does not give them legal status.
2001 9/11 Attacks
The 9/11 attacks caused widespread national security fears -- as then Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, “fundamentally changed our view of the openness of our society.” Nineteen of the attackers were foreign-born members of Al-Qaeda, many with valid visas, leading the government to tighten border controls.
2002 Homeland Security Act
This act was signed by President George W. Bush, creating the Department of Homeland Security, in response to the 9/11 attacks.
2003 Immigration and Customs Enforcement Created
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was established in March 2003 as the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is comprised of five integrated divisions that form a 21st century law enforcement agency with broad responsibilities for a number of key homeland security priorities.
As a result, jurisdiction over immigration laws changed hands, moving from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the Department of Homeland Security, signaling a clear connection between fears about terrorism within U.S. borders and immigration law.
2004 Operation Endgame Started
The Department of Homeland Security launched “Operation Endgame,” a strategy to remove all deportable aliens within 10 years. In 2005, a Homeland Security Spending Bill increased funds for immigration law enforcement to $10 billion, significantly raising the number of border patrol agents, immigration investigators and interior detention personnel.
2005 Secure America and Orderly Immigration Bill
Sen. John McCain co-sponsored this major immigration reform bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy. The bill called for the creation of two visa programs for foreign workers, one for the low-skilled and a second for skilled "essential" workers. The bill would have let immediate family members immigrate with the workers and would have let existing illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. provided they pay a fine and prove residency, ideally leading to their eventual legalization. This bill never came to a vote.
2006 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill
The next year, a bipartisan compromise announced with much fanfare followed the same principles. That passed the Senate in May 2006, but stalled in the House. Eventually Congress passed a border security bill, which included no major steps toward comprehensive immigration reform, but which called for more border fences.
2007 Immigration Bill
President Bush led a bipartisan effort to pass this bill calling for the biggest changes to immigration law in more than 20 years. It offered legal status to millions of illegal immigrants via a guest-worker visa program, while trying to secure the nation’s borders. The 2007 bill made even less headway than the 2006 attempt at immigration reform, going down to defeat in the Senate.
ICE unveils sweeping new plan to target criminal aliens in jails nationwide. Initiative aims to identify and remove criminal aliens from all U.S. jails and prisons. Many nationwide raids on workplaces have resulted in thousands of arrests of illegal aliens. There have been federal lawsuits filed for “arbitrary and indefinite detention” of those arrested.
Presidential Candidates’ Immigration Views
There is not much distinguishing one candidates’ views from the others. It is widely acknowledged that the current immigration system needs much improvement. All the candidates basically support the following: a path to legalization for illegal immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines; tougher penalties for hiring illegal immigrants; and have voted for more fence along the Mexican border.
Obama voted for final passage of a bill in September 2006 that called for 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, after opposing a version in May of that year. He also supported the 2007 comprehensive bill that would have established a “guest-worker” program, provided a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., emphasized worker skills for visas instead of family ties and beefed up border security. The measure never got an up-or-down vote, but Obama voted for a similar bill in 2006. He has also advocated that employers need to do more to check the legal status of their workers. His plan calls for a new employment eligibility verification system.
Clinton voted for a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border in October 2006 after a comprehensive immigration bill died for lack of consensus. She has also voted for funding to hire more Border Patrol agents as well as additional security efforts along the nation’s northern border. Like Obama, Clinton supported a comprehensive bill that never got an up-or-down vote in 2007. In 2006, Clinton voted for a comprehensive immigration bill — similar to the one that died a year later.
McCain sponsored the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, whose reform of visa programs and immigration-control measures bears an $18.5 billion price tag through 2012. Additionally, he's pledged $5 billion in the next four yours for a high-tech fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Department of Homeland Security
Ellis Island Archives
Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Immigration and Naturalization Service
Library of Congress