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History of Immigration Laws

Freedom, Controls then More Freedom. For much of its history the United States allowed unrestricted immigration. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, various restrictions were placed, most notably on Asian immigrants. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, also known as the Permanent National Origins Quota Act, began a quota system that lasted for 40 years. Simply put, countries could send legal immigrants to the United States in proportion to the percentage of the population (in 1924) who were of that particular nationality. The law favored immigrants from northwestern Europe, and almost completely cut out immigrants from Asia. A preference system was added in 1952 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, giving preference to people with skills needed in the United States, relatives of U.S. citizens, etc.

Preferences Instead of Quotas. The Hart-Celler Act in 1965 did away with the quota system, though it kept much of the preference system. In essence, it no longer mattered where the person came from, just who he or she was, though there was still a partial bias in favor of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. Special skills, refugee status, and relation to a citizen or legal permanent resident form the basis for the preference system.

Most further legislation dealt with the problem of illegal aliens. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (the Simpson-Rodino Bill) began an amnesty program and began penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens. Continuing legislation involves giving special status to nationals of certain countries (like Cuba and Nicaragua), as well as various amnesty and immigrant visa lottery programs.

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