Immigration: Historical Trends & Perspectives

Immigration: Historical Trends & Perspectives



Immigration has played an important role in American history, and the United States continues to have the most open immigration policy in the world. Before the era of rapid communications and transportation, America encouraged relatively open immigration to settle its empty lands. After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1876 declared the regulation of immigration to be a federal responsibility. Legislation in 1891 and 1895 created the Bureau of Immigration.

From 1900 to 1920, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived during what is known as the “Great Wave.” The outbreak of World War I reduced immigration from Europe, but mass immigration resumed upon the war’s conclusion, and Congress responded with a new immigration policy: the national-origins quota system passed in 1921 and revised in 1924. Immigration was limited by assigning each nationality a quota based on its representation in past U.S. census figures. This quota favored immigrants from Northwestern Europe in particular. Congress also created the U.S. Border Patrol within the Bureau of Immigration in 1924.

There was very little immigration over the next 20 years, with net immigration actually dropping below zero for several years during the Depression. Immigration remained relatively low during the 20 years following World War II, because the 1920s national-origins system remained in place after Congress re-codified and combined all previous immigration and naturalization law into the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. American agriculture continued to import seasonal labor from Mexico, as they had during the war, under a 1951 formal agreement between the United States and Mexico that made the Bracero Program permanent.

In 1965, Congress replaced the national origins system with a preference system designed to unite immigrant families and attract skilled immigrants to the United States. This bill drastically shifted the source countries of immigrants away from Northwestern Europe. The majority of applicants for immigration visas in the following decades started coming from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe. As a result of this legislation, the number of immigrants arriving each year would more than triple from approximately 320,000 in the 1960s to over a million per year by the 21st century.

Excerpted from “Historical Overview of [American] Immigration Policy” (by The Center for Immigration Studies). To continue reading, click here.

Additional Resources:

Historical Overview of [American] Immigration Policy
By The Center for Immigration Studies

U.S. Immigration Timeline

How Eisenhower Solved Illegal Border Crossings from Mexico
By John Dillin
July 6, 2006

Keeping Extremists Out: The History of Exclusion and the Need for Its Revival
By James Edwards (Center for Immigration Studies)
September 2005

The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act
By The Center for Immigration Studies
September 1, 1995

The 1965 Immigration Act: Anatomy of a Disaster
By Ben Johnson
December 10, 2002

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