Report No. 80-223 EPW
A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S.
Specialist in Social Legislation
Education and Public Welfare Division
December 22, 1980
JV 6201 U.S. A
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U.S. immigration policy has been shaped not only by the perceived needs
of this country, but by the needs and aspirations of the immigrants themselves.
This paper reviews the major streams of immigration to the United States in
the context of the country's changing views of immigration.
EARLY IMMIGRATION .........................................................
19th CENTURY IMMIGRATION ..................................................
INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
THE 1920s: NUMERICAL RESTRICTIONS ........................................
THE 1930s and 1940s: REFUGEES AND BRACEROS ...............................
THE IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT OF 1952 ...............................
REFUGEE ADMISSIONS IN THE 1950s AND 1960s .................................
THE 1880s THROUGH WORLD WAR I
THE IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT AMENDMENTS OF 1965
AND THEIR AFTERMATH
THE 1970s AND 1980: UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS. REFUGEES. AND
THE SELECT COMMISSION
APPENDIX A: IMMIGRATION BY COUNTRY. FOR DECADES 1820-1978 ................
APPENDIX B: REFUGEES ADMITTED. 1946-1977 .................................
SELECTED REFERENCES .......................................................
A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY
INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
U.S. immigration policy has been shaped not only by the perceived needs
of this country, but by the needs and aspirations of the immigrants themselves.
This paper reviews the major streams of immigration to the United States in
the context of the country's changing views of immigration.
During the initial immigration of settlers and pioneers to the first European colonies on the North American continent, the objectives of the immigrants
and their sending colonial powers were dominant--a complex blend of religious,
political, and economic motives which eventually produced the new American
Following the establishment of the United States at the end of the 18th
century, a wave of mass migration flowed from the European continent to the
new nation throughout the 19th century. 1 1 For the immigrants, economic, religious, and political motives continued to be dominant.
The United States' goals
in receiving them included the need for new citizens who would participate in
national economic and political growth, as well as the humanitarian desire to
provide a refuge for the oppressed of other lands. During this period, there
were few restrictions on the entering immigrants; our national purposes coincided with essentially unlimited immigration.
11 A table prepared by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
entitled "Immigration by Country for Decades, 1820-1978" appears as Appendix A.
The table categorizes immigrants by country of last permanent residence, rather
than by country of birth.
As the nation entered the 20th century, cultural conflicts resulting from
the changing ethnic character of the immigrant population from Northern and
Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe, and economic strains in the
nation began to generate domestic political opposition to unrestricted immigration.
Following World War I, this political opposition led to restrictive
legislation focusing predominantly on the ethnic origins of the new immigrants,
and also on the size of the immigrant flow.
By the 1930s this legislation in
combination with the economic disincentive of the Great Depression had resulted
in a massive reduction in the inflow of immigrants.
Following World War I1 and continuing through the 1950s the pattern of
immigration as we know it today began to emerge, consisting of immigrants, refugees, and temporary and/or undocumented workers.
Refugees came by the hundreds
of thousands, fleeing the ravages of World War I1 and the spread of Communism.
Immigrants continued to come primarily under the terms of the national origins
quota system, which was extended with minor revisions in 1952 and continued in
effect until 1965.
Agricultural workers came from Mexico, some legally as
Braceros and others illegally as wetbacks, the historical predecessors of today's undocumented aliens.
The distinction between refugees and immigrants became firmly established
during the period following World War 11, and has continued until the present
Defined broadly, refugees flee, generally in large groups, from politi-
cal or religious persecution; immigrants come voluntarily, generally on an
individual basis and in an orderly fashion. A third group, illegal or undocumented aliens, come outside the law, generally for economic reasons.
In the case of immigrants, the purposes and goals of the United States are
dominant in deciding who comes, a process embodied in the Federal immigration
The admiss'ion of refugees is also subject to Federal legislation, but its
enactment and/or administration has tended to be in reaction to events beyond
the control of either the receiving society or the refugees themselves.
The distinction between refugees and immigrants was unheard of during
the mass migrations of the 19th century; no difference was perceived between
the Irish fleeing the potato famine and the German "forty-eighters" fleeing
It developed in the wake of World War 11, primarily as
a means of reconciling our traditional ideal of asylum with restrictions in
the immigration law.
Since the 1940s, the goals and purposes of our immigration policy have
diverged regarding the admission of refugees and immigrants. In the case of
refugees, humanitarian concerns and foreign policy considerations have been
Domestic, as opposed to foreign, policy considerations have been
paramount in the admission of immigrants.
The United States' desire in the
1920s to protect and preserve what was then seen as its national ethnic heritage led to the adoption of the national origins quota system.
This system was
repealed in the context of the civil rights movement of the 1 9 6 0 ~rather
on the predominantly foreign policy grounds for change advanced in the 1950s
by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the flow of refugees from political turmoil
in other nations continued. The equal treatment of all nations and family
reunification emerged as the primary goals of our policy for admitting immigrants.
The flow of illegal or undocumented aliens, particularly from other
countries in the Western Hemisphere, resulted in political pressure for more
effective measures to restrict illegal immigration, which have not yet been
Now, at the beginning of the 1980s, the nation is attempting to
articulate a workable policy towards those who would immigrate here for whatever reasons, accommodating both our past tradition of asylum as well as the
economic and political realities of the present.
Technically speaking, U.S. immigration began with the Declaration of
Independence in 1776 and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which accorded the United
States recognition as a nation.
Official immigration statistics began to be
kept in 1820. However, the settlers and pioneers who colonized North America
before the founding of the United States were also immigrants. These early
immigrants came from a variety of nations and for a variety of reasons to a new
land which placed few constraints on their coming. They provided the people
needed to explore and settle the continent, and to develop a new society.
The early colonists were primarily of European stock, representing the
nations which laid claim to the new land.
Colonists came from Great Britain,
France and the Netherlands to settle the Eastern seaboard of the continent.
the Southeast, France sent colonists to settle Louisiana.
In the South and
West, Spanish colonists settled in Florida, in the areas which are now Texas
and New Mexico and in California. Along with these settlers came involuntary
immigrants, black men brought as slaves from the African continent.
colonists came for a variety of reasons--to serve as soldiers and civilian
representatives of the colonizing power; to obtain religious and political
freedom; to convert others to their religious views; to improve their economic
status and pursue economic gain; to seek adventure; and involuntarily as slaves
to provide labor for colonial agriculture and industry.
A brief listing of some of the colonial settlers suggests the diversity of
motives which inspired the early immigrants as well as the kaleidoscope of
nations from which they came.
A combination of religious, political and econom-
ic motives brought settlers from Great Britain to the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
the Quaker settlement in Pennsylvania, the Catholic settlement in Baltimore,
and the colony of Georgia.
Spanish settlers came to California, Florida, and
Mexico to search for gold and to trade with and bring Christianity to the Indians, and to expand the Spanish Empire.
French settlers came to Louisiana and
Canada to seek land and business opportunities, convert the natives, and protect
French trading interests.
French Hueguenots fled religious persecution after
the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
German Pietist sects, including the Mennonites and Moravians, also fled
persecution in search of religious freedom, many in response to the sympathetic
Quaker teachings of William Penn.
A later German group, the Hessians, came to
fight as mercenaries with the British in the American Revolution, and 5,000
stayed to become immigrants.
Dutch and Swedes came for political freedom and
economic opportunity, and the Scotch-Irish came throughout the 18th century for
economic, religious, and political motives.
The first black slaves were brought to the English colonies in 1619 on a
The term "slave" initially was applied loosely to both white and
black servants, and both were treated as indentured servants. However, conditions worsened as the slave trade became more profitable.
Slaves were brought
to the English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch colonies throughout the
The numbers are not known, although they have been estimated
in the millions.
Slave importation was prohibited in 1808, but an illicit
slave trade continued until the Civil War.
When the first census was taken in 1790, the total population was recorded
English, Scots, and Scotch-Irish accounted for 75 percent;
Germans made up 8 percent; other nationalities with substantial numbers included the Dutch, French, Swedes and Spanish.
The 1790 census showed a black
population of approximately 750,000. By the census of 1810, the white population had increased to approximately 6 million, and the black population to
A new society was effectively established here by the end of the 18th
century, taking its language, the basis for its law, and many of its customs
from England, with major contributions from other European countries.
country's libertarian principles included a belief in the mission of America
to provide asylum for the oppressed, and in the corollary right of the oppressed to seek freedom and opportunity in America. As will be seen, these ideals
were remarkably appropriate to the needs of the United States and Europe during
the 19th century.
At the same time, there were indications as early as the 18th century of
a more negative view of immigration which was to emerge as the dominant one in
Perhaps the best known expression of this view was Benjamin
Franklin's warning in 1753 about the Germans in Pennsylvania:
those who came hither are generally the most stupid of
their own nation, and as ignorance is often attended with
great credulity, when knavery would mislead it, and with
suspicion when honesty would set it right; and, few of the
English understand the German language, and so cannot address
them either from the press or pulpit, it is almost impossible
to remove any prejudices they may entertain.
used to liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it. 2/
Franklin feared that the Germans would eventually outnumber the English, "and
even our government will become precarious."
Similar fears, although not about the Germans, led to the adoption of the
national origins quota system 168 years later. However, one of the largest
mass migrations in recorded history preceded this step.
During the century
between the fall of Napoleon and World War I, from 30 to 35 million immigrants
came to the United States.
2 1 Quoted by Franklin D. Scott, The People of America:
Washington, American Historical Assoc. , AHA pamphlets 241, 1972,
19TH CENTURY IMMIGRATION
The mass migration of the 19th century was the result of a neat perfect
match between the needs of a new country and overcrowded Europe.
this time was undergoing drastic social change and economic reorganization,
severely compounded by overpopulation. An extraordinary increase in population coincided with the breakup of the old agricultural order which had been
in place since medieval times throughout much of Europe.
Commonly held lands
were broken up into individually owned farms, resulting in landless status
for peasants from Ireland to Russia.
At approximately the same time, the
industrial revolution was underway, moving from Great Britain to Western Europe,
and then to Southern and Eastern Europe.
For Germany, Sweden, Russia, and
Japan, the highest points of emigration coincided with the beginnings of
industrialization and the ensuing general disruption of employment patterns.
The artisans joined the peasants evicted from their land as immigrants to
the United States.
Population pressure and related economic problems, some-
times in the extreme form of famine, are generally cited as being the major
causes of the mass migration of this long period, followed by religious persecution and the desire for political freedom.
America, on the other hand, had a boundless need for people to push back
the frontier, to build the railways, to defend unstable boundaries, and to
populate new States.
The belief in America as a land of asylum for the oppress-
ed was reinforced by the commitment to the philosophy of manifest destiny.
Immigration was required for settlement, defense, and economic well-being.
The coincidence of European and American interests in mass migration during
this period is well illustrated by two quotations, one from the European and
one from the American point of view.
The first is from a letter written home
by a Frenchman, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, in 1792:
There is no wonder that this country has so many charms,
and presents to Europeans so many temptations to remain
in it. A traveller in Europe becomes a stranger as soon
as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here.
We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every
person's country; the variety of our soils, situations,
climates, governments, and produce, hath something
which must please everybody.
He does not find, as in Europe, a crowded society, where
every place is over-stocked; he does not feel that perpetual collision of parties, that difficulty of beginning,
that contention which oversets so many. There is room for
everybody in America; has he any particular talent, or
industry? he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood,
and it succeeds. 31
The second quotation is from the Republican party platform in 1864, which
Abraham Lincoln participated in writing:
"Foreign immigration which in the
past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase of power to this
nation--the asylum of the oppressed of all nations--should be fostered and
encouraged by a liberal and just policy." 41
The United States throughout the
19th century was in the happy position of doing well by doing good, of adding
to its "wealth, resources, and increase of power" by serving as "the asylum of
the oppressed of all nations."
Official, albeit imperfect, immigration statistics were recorded beginning
in 1820 by the Department of State, which continued to perform this task until
The immigration data collection function was subsequently transferred
to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Statistics, and from there to the Bureau
of Immigration, housed first in the Department of Labor and subsequently in
the Department of Justice.
Data collection began in 1819 in response to a Federal law requiring ship
captains arriving from abroad to submit a manifest to the customs collector
31 Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer. Reprinted in Immigration
and tge American Tradition, ed. Moses Rischin, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Co.,
Inc., 1976, pp. 29-30.
by William S.
Bros., 1950, p. 6.
Bernard, American Immigration Policy, New York,
showing the sex, occupation, age, and country of all passengers aboard.
tially, data was recorded only on vessels arriving at Eastern ports; Western
ports were included beginning in 1850.
During the Civil War, data was avail-
able only from ports under Federal control.
Immigration over land borders was
recorded haphazardly until around 1910.
The generally accepted estimate of the number of immigrants entering
between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1819 is 250,000.
In 1820, 8,385
entries were recorded; by 1840 annual immigration had increased tenfold, to
Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland accounted for 70 percent of
the 750,949 entries between 1820-1840.
Emigration from Ireland and England was
primarily in response to economic problems.
In Germany, economic problems
were aggravated by liberal discontent with political developments following
the Napoleonic Wars.
Immigration increased almost 600 percent, to 4,311,465, during the subsequent 20-year period, 1841-1860.
for 87.5 percent of the total.
Ireland, Germany, and Great Britain accounted
This was the period of the potato famine, which
hit hardest in Ireland but affected other parts of Europe as well.
Even with high rates of out-migration, Ireland's population had almost
doubled from 1800-1840, increasing from 4.5 million to over 8 million.
increasingly impoverished peasants had become almost wholly dependent on the
potato for sustenance. When the entire potato crop was wiped out in 1846
and 1847, half a million people died, 3 million lived on charity, and hundreds
of thousands fled to America.
Just under 1.7 million came from Ireland between
Emigration from Ireland reduced rather than simply slowed population
growth, and in the second half of the century significant amounts of money
flowed back into the country in the form of remittances from AmericaGermany sent almost 1.4 million immigrants to America during 1841-1860.
Germany suffered a severe economic crisis during the 1840s, as well as political
unrest culminating in the revolution of 1848. The "forty-eighters" joined
those fleeing to America from the potato famine, high prices, and widespread
An additional 700,000 came from Great Britain.
By 1860, the population of the United States had increased to 31 million,
from 7 million in 1810. More than 5 million immigrants had added to this
increase. About half of them were from Great Britain and Ireland, followed by
more than 1.5 million Germans and 50,000 Scandinavians.
Immigration to the United States was widely, although not universally,
encouraged during the mid-19th century; pull factors were operative in addition
to the push factors discussed above.
Of major importance was the so-called
These were letters to relatives at home encouraging others
to follow, and sometimes including one-way steamship tickets.
tant factor was the active recruitment of passengers by steamship companies and
railroad workers by the railroads.
Following the Civil War, the development of the Union Pacific and other
railways required the western movement of immigrants. The migration west of
immigrants was also encouraged by western States by brochures and agents sent
to New York and abroad, and by reducing the residence period required to vote.
The Homestead Act of 1862 made western lands available to immigrants as well as
The Contract Labor Law passed in 1864 was intended to
encourage immigration by advancing money for passage.
However, it was repealed in
1868, under pressure from U.S. labor groups.
Anti-immigration, or nativist, feeling was also strong during the mid-19th
The nativist movement of this period was inspired by a combination of
anti-Catholicism, fear for American labor, the linking of immigration with
crime and poverty, and concern about the political impact of immigrants. The
nativist Know Nothing party showed considerable strength in the 1850s, but it
ebbed by 1860.
Immigration increased to 5,127,015 during the 20-year period 1861-1880, a
figure approximately equal to total previous immigration since the country had
gained its independence.
Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland continued to
account for the largest numbers.
from Sweden, Norway, and China.
Additionally, there were significant numbers
The high level of immigration during this
period reflected, in part, the growing improvements in international communication and transportation, which resulted in widespread circulation of stories
about the new land, as well as a less arduous sea voyage.
In Sweden, the winter of 1867-1868 brought a monetary crisis, followed by
a crop failure and local famine.
These developments, in combination with
precarious agricultural conditions, the displacement of artisans by industrial
development, and ideological and religious differences, resulted in mass Swedish
emigration in the late 1860s.
A similar pattern was repeated in Norway and
throughout other countries as agrarian difficulties beset Europe during the
Eventually, the pressure was eased by the growth of industrial employ-
ment in both rural areas and the towns and a slowing population growth.
gration from the Scandinavian countries eased off in the second decade of the
THE 1880s THROUGH WORLD WAR I
The last two decades of the 19th century were particularly significant for
The volume of immigration continued to increase, the principal
sources shifted from Northern and Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe,
and the Federal government assumed an increasingly active role.
Federal legislation barring the entry of convicts and prostitutes was
enacted on March 3, 1875.
The Act of August 3, 1882 is considered the first
general immigration statute.
It was enacted in response to a combination of
factors, including the increasing number of immigrants; the fear that criminals,
paupers, and mental and physical defectives were being systematically sent to
the United States; and an 1875 Supreme Court ruling that State laws regulating
immigration infringed on Congress' exclusive power over foreign commerce and
This latter development led to lobbying by private wel-
fare organizations in Eastern cities for the establishment of Federal controls.
The Immigration Act of 1882 gave the Secretary of the Treasury authority
over immigration, basing this jurisdiction on a newly established head tax of
50 cents per immigrant.
The law also continued the bar against undesirables,
including convicts, mental defectives, and paupers.
This legislation marked
the beginning of an active Federal role in immigration.
It was enacted primari-
ly in response to problems associated with what the Immigration Commission was
to characterize in its 1911 report as the "old" immigration, from Northern and
Western Europe; the "new" immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was just
The year 1882 also saw the enactment of the first legislation basing
eligibility--or ineligibility--for entry on national origin.
This was the
Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882, which remained in effect until its repeal
Contract labor laws, prohibiting the importation under contract of
foreign labor, were also enacted in the 1880s, following the depression,
strikes, and efforts of the Knights of Labor during mid-years of the decade.
The three elements contained in this early legislation--individual qualifications, national origin, and protection of U.S.
labor--formed the basis for the
restrictive policy which supplanted the policy of asylum, or essentially free
immigration, after World War I. Chief in importance among these was national
Immigration reached a high of 5,246,613 in 1881-1890, followed by
3,687,564 in the last decade in the 19th century.
Germany, the United Kingdom,
and Ireland accounted for almost half of the immigration during this period,
although their numbers all declined significantly in the 1890s.
from these countries continued a steady and sharp decline into the first two
decades of the 20th century.
This was due largely to improved economic condi-
tions, resulting from the leveling off of population growth and the increase in
industrialization which absorbed increasing numbers of workers.
In contrast, immigration from Italy and Austria-Hungary increased rapidly
in the 1880s and 1890s, as it did from other countries in Southern and Eastern
More than 2 million entered during the first decade of the 20th
century from both Italy and Austria-Hungary, and more than 1.5 million came
The push factors behind this migration resembled those underlying the
earlier mass migration from Northern and Western Europe.
beset Italy, Poland, and Greece following the collapse of the old agrarian
order and the disruptive early stages in industrialization, aggravated by severe
In Italy, the cholera epidemic of 1887 was an added impetus
Again, America provided an alternative to poverty and sometimes
starvation for landless peasants and unemployed artisans.
of religious and ethnic persecution.
German Mennonites, and Armenians.
Others fled because
These included the Russian Jews, Russo-
Others left for predominantly political
reasons, including Poles and Russians.
While the United States remained willing and able to absorb the mass migration from Southern and Eastern Europe during the end of the 19th and the
beginning of the 20th centuries, the country's needs had changed.
of the frontier, officially announced in the 1890 census, coincided with the
development of a booming industrial economy which required manpower just as
settlement and the opening of the West had in a previous period.
immigrants, as they were characterized by the Dillingham Commission, fueled
the industrialization and urbanization of America.
Quoting from the Commis-
sion's 1911 report:
A large proportion of the southern and eastern European immigrants of the past 25 years have entered the manufacturing
and mining industries of the eastern and middle western States,
mostly in the capacity of unskilled laborers. There is no
basic industry in which they are not largely represented and
in many cases they compose more than 50 percent of the total
number of persons employed in such industries. Coincident
with the advent of these millions of unskilled laborers there
has been an unprecedented expansion of the industries in which
they have been employed. Whether this great immigration
movement was caused by the industrial development or whether
the fact that a practically unlimited and available supply of
cheap labor existed in Europe was taken advantage of for the
purpose of expanding the industries, cannot well be demonstrated.
Whatever may be the truth in this regard it is certain that
southern and eastern European immigrants have almost completely
monopolized unskilled labor activities in many of the most
important industries. 5-1
The growing ambivalence toward immigration during the early 20th century
is apparent in this description. Immigrants were believed by many to adversely
affect the wages and working conditions of U.S.
They were also asso-
ciated with the city by a country which was predominantly rural in its attitudes.
As early as 1890, 62 percent of the foreign-born lived in urban places, compared to 26 percent of native whites born of native parents.
The urban immi-
grant was blamed for the real and imagined evils of the city, including crime
5 1 U.S. Immigration Commission. Abstracts of Reports.
61st Congress, 3d session, l9lO-l9ll, pp. 37-38.
Senate Doc. 747,
Immigration in the first decade of the 20th century reached 8,795,386,
the highest number in the country's history to date, followed by the second
highest number, 5,735,811, in 1911-1920.
More than 1 million immigrants
entered the United States in 1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1913, and 1914.
end of World War I, the era of mass migration was brought to a close by the
enactment of increasingly restrictive legislation.
Legislation enacted during World War I, the Immigration Act of February 5,
1917, codified existing restrictions on immigration and added new ones.
acted over President Wilson's veto, the 1917 Act established the Asiatic Barred
Zone, which further restricted the entry of Orientals.
It also prohibited the
entry of aliens over 16 who were unable to read in any language, a measure
specifically intended to curtail immigration from southeastern Europe.'
cy provisions had been passed previously in 1896, 1913, and 1915, and vetoed
successively by Presidents Cleveland, Taft, and Wilson.
In his 1915 veto message, President Wilson charged that the literacy test
marked a sharp departure from the traditional American belief in "the right of
political asylum" which had heretofore characterized American immigration policy.
Quoting from his message:
Hitherto we have generously kept our doors open to all who
were not unfitted by reason of disease or incapacity for selfsupport or such personal records and antecedents as were
likely to make them a menace to our peace and order or to the
wholesome and essential relationships of life. In this bill
it is proposed to turn away from tests of character and of
quality and impose tests which exclude and restrict; for the
new tests here embodied are not tests of quality or of character or of personal fitness, but tests of opportunity. Those
who come seeking opportunity are not to be admitted unless they
have already had one of the chief of the opportunities they
seek, the opportunity of education. The object of such provisions is restriction, not selection. 61
61 Woodrow Wilson. Not tests of quality but of opportunity. Reprinted
and the American Tradition, ed. Moses Rischin. Indianapolis,
Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc., 1976, pp. 285-286.
President Wilson went on to note, "If the people of this country have made up
their minds to limit the number of immigrants by arbitrary tests and so reverse
the policy of all the generations of Americans that have gone before them, it
is their right to do so."
However, he did not believe this to be the case.
Two years later, a wartime Congress overrode a subsequent veto by President Wilson, and the literacy requirement became law.
Under the combined
pressure of wartime nationalism and post-war isolationism, the economics of
increasing urbanization, and a concern about the large numbers of immigrants
entering from southeastern Europe, the American public, as reflected by the
Congress, opted to reverse the policy of providing political asylum for one
of comparative restriction.
Numerical limitations followed in 1921 and, in
varying forms have remained in effect ever since.
THE 1920s: NUMERICAL RESTRICTIONS
Until the 1920s, legal restrictions on immigration had essentially
remained qualitative rather than quantitative.
That is, there were no restric-
tions on the number of aliens who could enter, provided that they met the
criteria set forth in the law.
During the 1920s numerical restrictions were
placed on immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere. Western Hemisphere immigration remained numerically unrestricted until 1968.
The temporary Quota Act of May 19, 1921, was followed by the permanent
Immigration Act of May 26, 1924 which remained in force until 1952.
the national origins quota formula which went into effect on July 1, 1929, the
annual quota of any nationality was "a number which bears the same ratio to
150,000 as the number of inhabitants in the United States in 1920 having that
national origin bears to the number of white inhabitants of the United States
in 1920, with a minimum quota of 100 for each nationality." 71 Natives of countries in the "barred zone," encompassing most oriental countries, were generally inadmissible as immigrants with certain exceptions.
The movement toward numerical limitations initially reflected a genuine
fear of being engulfed by the refugees of war-ravaged Europe, together with
the growing nationalism of the United States as an emerging world power and the
isolationism which characterized the country following World War I. As the
1920s progressed, the arguments in favor of numerical restrictions were
buttressed and shaped by popular biological theories of the period alleging the
superiority of certain races.
Two statements by Dr. Harry N. Laughlin, a
eugenics consultant to the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in the early 1920s indicate the important role these theories played
in the direction taken by immigration policy immediately after World War I:
We in this country have been so imbued with the idea of
democracy, or the equality of all men, that we have left
out of consideration the matter of blood or natural born
hereditary mental and moral differences. No man who
breeds pedigreed plants and animals can afford to neglect
The National Origins provisions of the immigration control
law of 1924 marked the actual turning point from immigration control based on the asylum idea
in favor of the biological basis.
THE 1930s AND 1940s:
REFUGEES AND BRACEROS
The history of U.S. immigration policy from the 1930s to the present time
has been characterized by a tension resulting from the attempt to accommodate
our traditional ideal of providing asylum from oppression within the framework
71 H. Rept. 1365, 82nd Congress, 2d session, February 14, 1952, p. 37.
81 Quoted by Abba Schwartz.
~chuster,1968, pp. 105-106.
The Open Society.
New York, Simon and
of a comparatively restrictive immigration law.
This tension appears to stem
in part from the fact that the fortunate congruence in the 19th century between
our economic needs and our humanitarian desire to offer refuge to the oppressed
no longer exists.
We no longer have the manpower requirements which charac-
terized the settling of the wilderness followed by the industrialization of
Immigration in the 1930s totaled 528,431, down from 4,107,209 in the 1920s,
and accompanied by substantial emigration. Restrictive immigration laws combined
with the Depression to slow the immigrant flow to the lowest point since the
Without question, Hitler was a major "push" factor of the period; Ger-
many led the sending countries, and many more would have come if they had been
In a campaign speech in October 1932, Herbert Hoover said, "With the
growth of democracy in foreign countries political persecution has largely
There is no longer a necessity for the United States to provide an
asylum for those persecuted because of conscience." 91 Hitler came to power
shortly thereafter, and proved him tragically wrong.
The flight of refugees
from Germany began in 1933 and continued for the rest of the decade, to be
followed by an even greater exodus of displaced persons throughout Europe after
World War 11.
The United States accepted an estimated 250,000 refugees from Nazi
persecution prior to our entry into the war in 1941.
The country was
undergoing the worst depression in its history, and efforts to liberalize the
immigration law were unsuccessful.
91 Quoted by Robert Divine. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952.
New ~ a v e n ,Yale University Press, 1957, p. 92.
Ibid., p. 104.
U.S. motives in the admission of refugees from the 1930s until the
present time have combined humanitarian concerns with foreign policy considerations. We have, in effect, traded the wilderness for the world.
of our role as the leader of the Western alliance was a major factor in the
passage of special legislation allowing for the admission of displaced persons
and refugees in the wake of World War 11.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 was the first refugee legislation enacted
in the nation's history.
Together with its subsequent amendments, it provided
for the admission of more than 400,000 displaced persons through the end of
1951, by mortgaging future immigration quotas.
Poles accounted for one-third
of the admissions, followed by German ethnics. 111
Total immigrant admissions doubled during the 1940s compared to the 1930s
going from 528,431 to 1,035,039.
This was still the lowest 10-year figure
since the 1830s, exclusive of the preceding decade.
Of this number, 354,804
entered from the Western Hemisphere.
The total number of permanent entries from the Western Hemisphere during
the 1940s and 1950s was far exceeded by the number of admissions for temporary
employment from the Western Hemisphere countries, led overwhelmingly by Mexico.
The Mexican bracero program lasted from 1942 until 1964, and authorized the
entry of between 4 and 5 million temporary agricultural workers.
although much smaller numbers also entered from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados,
British Honduras, Canada and Newfoundland.
THE IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT OF 1952
The Immigration and Nationality Act enacted on June 27, 1952 was a major
recodification and revision of existing immigration and nationality law.
111 An INS table showing refugees admitted by country or region of battle,
appears as Appendix B.
codified and carried forward, with modifications, the essential elements of
both the 1917 and 1924 Acts discussed above, as well as those provisions of
the Internal Security Act of September 23, 1950, relating to the exclusion of
The 1952 legislation reflected the cold war atmosphere and anti-communism of the period, following World War I1 and at the onset of the Korean War.
The law was, Robert Divine asserted, "in essence an act of conservatism
rather than of intolerance" 121 The difference between the climate of opinion
in the 1920s and the early 1950s is apparent in the following statement in the
1950 report of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Without giving credence to any
theory of Nordic superiority, the subcommittee believes that the adoption of the
national origins quota formula was a rational and logical method of numerically
restricting immigration in such a manner as to best preserve the sociological
131 In contrast to the 1920s, the
and cultural balance of the United States." case for the national origins quota system in the 1950s was not generally
argued on the grounds of racial superiority, but on sociological theories of
the time relating to cultural assimilation.
The provisions effectively prohi-
biting entry from most Asian countries were also slightly relaxed by the 1952
However, the legislation was characterized by supporters and opponents
alike as a restrictionist measure, and was a severe disappointment to those
who had hoped for a liberalization of the immigration law.
the continuation of the national origins quota system was viewed by critics of
the legislation as being inappropriate to the needs of U.S. foreign policy.
Foremost among these critics was President Truman, whose veto was overridden
S. Rept. 1515, 81st Congress, 2d session, p. 455.
by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House, and 57 to 26 in the Senate.
from his veto message:
Today, we are "protecting" ourselves as we were in 1924,
against beieg flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe.
This is fantastic. The countries of Eastern Europe have
fallen under the Communist yoke--they are silenced, fenced
off by barbed wire and minefields--no one passes their
borders but at the risk of his life. We do not need to be
protected against immigrants from these countries--on the
contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save
those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to
succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism,
to welcome and restore them against the day when their
countries will, as we hope, be free again.
only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations
of our 1924 law.
In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered
and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in
this field of immigration. 14/
In addition to continuing the national origins quota system for the
Eastern Hemisphere, the 1952 Act also established a four-category selection
Fifty percent of each national quota was allocated for first preference
distribution to aliens with high education or exceptional abilities, and the
remaining three preference categories were divided among specified relatives
of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.
This four-point selection
system was the antecedent of our current preference system, which places higher
priority on family reunification than on needed skills.
However, under the
1952 law national origins remained the determining factor in immigrant admissions, and Northern and Western Europe were heavily favored.
As in the past,
the Western Hemisphere was not subject to numerical limitations.
Immigration during the decade 1951-1960 totaled 2,515,479, the highest
since the 1920s.
This was not surprising, since the two intervening decades
Doc. 520, 82nd Congress, 2d session, June 25, 1952, p. 5.
included the depression of the 1930s, and World War 11.
The gap between
Eastern and Western Hemisphere immigration also narrowed:
of the 2.5 million
entries, almost a million entered from the Western Hemisphere.
Less than half of the immigrants who entered during the 1950s were admitted under the quota system. While many came under special temporary laws
enacted to permit the admission of refugees and family members outside the
quotas, many others entered as nonquota immigrants (e.g. from the Western
Hemisphere) under the basic law.
The gradual recognition that the national
origins quota system was not functioning effectively as a means of regulating
imigration was an important factor leading to the major policy revision which
came in 1965.
REFUGEE ADMISSIONS IN THE 1950s AND 1960s
Major refugee admissions occurred outside the national origins quota
system during the 1950s.
The Refugee Relief Act of August 7, 1953 and the
August 31, 1954 amendments authorized the admission of 214,000 refugees from
wartorn Europe and escapees from Communist-dominated countries.
of the admissions during the life of the Act were Italians, followed by
Germans, Yugoslavs, and Greeks.
The Refugee Relief Act originated as an administration bill, and combined
humanitarian concern for the refugees and escapees with "international political considerations."
Quoting from President Eisenhower's letter which
accompanied the draft legislation:
These refugees, escapees, and distressed peoples now
constitute an economic and political threat of constantly
growing magnitude. They look to traditional American
humanitarian concern for the oppressed. International
political considerations are also factors which are
involved. We should take reasonable steps to help these
people to the extent that we share the obligation of the
free world. 151
In particular, the inclusion of the category of "escapees" from Communist
domination in this and subsequent refugee legislation reflected the preoccupations of this Cold War period.
This concern was also a major factor in the
admission of refugees from the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of October
1956. A total of 38,000 Hungarian refugees were eventually admitted to the
United States, 6,130 with Refugee Relief Act visas and the remainder under the
parole provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The Act of Septembet 11, 1957, sometimes referred to as the "RefugeeEscapee Act," provided for the admission of certain aliens who were eligible
under the terms of the Refugee Relief Act, as well as "refugee-escapees,"
defined as persons fleeing persecution in Communist countries or countries in
the Middle East.
This was the basis for the definition of "refugee" incorporated
in the Immigration and Nationality Act from 1965 until 1980.
A total of 29,000
entered under the temporary 1957 refugee provisions, led by Hungarians, Koreans,
Yugoslavs, and Chinese.
Many entered with visas authorized by but unused under
the expired Refugee Relief Act.
In addition, the 1957 legislation repealed the
quota deductions required by the mortgages incurred under the Displaced Persons
During the 1960s, refugees from persecution in Communist dominated
countries in the Eastern Hemisphere and from countries in the Middle East
continued to be admitted, first under the Fair Share Law, enacted July 14, 1960,
and subsequently under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
19,700 refugees entered under the 1960 legislation.
Its primary purpose was
151 Final Report of the Administrator of the Refugee Relief Act of 1953,
As ~ m z d e d ,Senate Committee Print, 85th Congress, 1st session, November 15,
1957, p. 1.
to enable the United States to participate in an international effort to close
the refugee camps which had been in operation in Europe since the end of World
U.S. participation was limited to one-fourth of the total number
Cuban refugees began entering the United States with the fall of the
Batista government in 1959 and continued throughout the 1960s and, in smaller
numbers, the 1970s.
Approximately 700,000 Cuban refugees had entered the
United States prior to new influx which began in April 1980.
In the past, the
United States has accepted the Cubans as refugees from Communism through a
variety of legal means.
THE IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY ACT AMENDMENTS OF 1965 AND THEIR AFTERMATH
The 1965 amendments to the 1952 Act repealed the national origins quota
system and, according to one authority, "represented the most far-reaching
revision of immigration policy in the United States since the First Quota Act
of 1921. 16/ In place of nationality and ethnic considerations, the 1965 Act
substituted a system based primarily on reunification of families and needed
The circumstances which led to this major shift in policy in 1965 were a
complex combination of changing public perceptions and values, politics, and
Public support for the repeal of the national origins
quota system reflected genuine changes in public attitudes toward race and
It can be argued that the 1965 immigration legislation was
as much a product of the mid-1960s and the heavily Democratic 89th Congress
which also produced major civil rights legislation, hq the 1952 Act had been
a product of the Cold War period of the early 1950s.
161 Harper, Elizabeth J. Immigration Laws of the United States,
3rd e x Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1975, p. 38.
The 1965 amendments replaced the national origins quota system as the
primary control of Eastern Hemisphere immigration with an annual ceiling on
Eastern Hemisphere immigration of 170,000 and a 20,000 per country limit.
Within these restrictions, immigrant visas were distributed according to a
seven-category preference system placing priority, in order, on family reunification attracting needed skills, and refugees.
The 1965 law also provided that
effective July 1, 1968, Western Hemisphere immigration would be limited by an
annual ceiling of 120,000, without per-country limits or a preference system.
The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976 (P.L. 94-571; 90
Stat. 2703) extended the 20,000 per-country limit and a slightly modified
version of the seven-category preference system equally to the Western Hemisphere.
The preference system and the per-country limits were applied to the
two hemispheres under the separate ceilings of 170,000 for the Eastern
Hemisphere, and 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere.
Legislation enacted in
1978 (P.L. 95-412; 92 Stat. 907) combined the separate ceilings into a single
worldwide ceiling of 290,000 with a single preference system.
Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-212; 9 4 Stat. 102) eliminated refugees as a category of
the preference system, and set the worldwide ceiling of 270,000, exclusive of
The major source of immigration to the United States has shifted since
1965 from Europe to Latin America and Asia, as shown in table 1, which compares
immigration during the 10-year periods 1956-1965 and 1967-1976.
latter decade, North and Central America, including Mexico, Cuba, and the West
Indies, led all other regions with 1,507,434.
While this number was augmented
by the flow of Cuban refugees, Mexico accounted for one-third of the total, with
550,964, in what appears to be a continuing trend.
The total figure for North
and Central America immigration represented an increase of 43.4 percent over the
This is dwarfed by the increase of 369.2 percent in Asian immigration,
from 224,342 during 1956-1965 to 1,052,688 during 1967-1976.
Asian increase clearly reflects the liberalization of the immigration law
Western Hemisphere immigration, in contrast, has increased in
spite of the adoption of the annual numerical ceiling of 120,000 on this
hemisphere as of July 1, 1968.
European immigration fell 27 percent in 1967-
1976 compared to the previous 10-year period, and was exceeded by both North
America and Asia, reversing the trend of almost two centuries of immigration
to the United States.
lHMIGRATION BY COUfiTRY OF BIRTH
FISCAL YEARS 1956-1965 AN0 1967-1976
Country o f O r i g i n
United K i n g d a
China and Taiwan
Jordan and P a l e s t i n e
Other A s i a
Country o f O r i g i n
South A f r i c a
Other A f r i c a
Tr t n i dad L Tobago
E l Salvador.
Other North Anerica
Other South America
U.S. Interagency Task Force on Immigration Policy, Staff Report,
March 1979, p. 124.
THE 1970s AND 1980:
UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS, REFUGEES, AND SELECT COMMISSION
The patterns of immigration and the policy considerations relating to it
in the 1970s resembled in some respects those of the 1950s after the enactment
of the Immigration and Nationality Act* In both decades, the entry of aliens
outside the qualitative and quantitative restrictions of the basic law--both
illegally as undocumented aliens, and legally as refugees--were increasingly
the dominant pattern in immigration and the basis for the major issues confronting the Congress.
After 10 years of relatively low apprehension figures, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began reporting rising numbers of apprehended
deportable aliens in fiscal year 1965, increasing to 1,057,977 by fiscal year
This is just under the all-time high of 1,089,583 apprehensions in
fiscal year 1954.
In 1971, Congress again began struggling with the problem of how best to
reduce the numbers and presumably adverse impact of illegal or undocumented
To date, it has not yet arrived at an agreement on how to remedy the
Legislation relating to the issue has received only limited action
since the passage by wide margins of remedial legislation by the House of
Representatives in the 92d and 93d Congresses.
The number of illegal or undocumented aliens in the United States is not
known; estimates currently range from 3 to 6 million.
The problem is generally
agreed to be primarily an economic one, both in its causes and its effects.
The primary, though not the only, effects of illegal immigration are believed
to occur in the labor market.
There has been increasing disagreement about
the nature and extent of these effects in such areas as the displacement of
U . S . workers, and the impact on wages and working conditions.
The major impetus behind the illegal migration to this country is generally
seen to be the economic imbalance between the United States and the countries
from which the aliens come.
They come here primarily to obtain employment as a
means of escaping poverty for themselves and their families, and in response to
apparent employment needs in this country.
In addition to concern over econom-
ic implications, increasing attention is being focused on foreign policy implications, particularly in respect to Mexico.
Admission and resettlement of refugees emerged again as a major immigration
issue in the mid-1970s, and remains one today.
Since the fall of Vietnam and
Cambodia in the spring of 1975, approximately 400,000 Indochinese refugees have
entered the United States, and 14,000 are entering monthly.
By the end of the 1970s, a consensus had been reached that a more coherent
and equitable approach to refugee admission and resettlement was needed.
result was the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act contained in
the Refugee Act of 1980, enacted on March 17, 1980 (P.L. 96-212; 94 Stat. 102).
The legislation repealed the ideological and geographic limitations which had
previously favored refugees fleeing Communism or from countries in the Middle
East and redefined "refugee" to conform with the definition used in the United
Nations Protocol and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
"refugee" is now defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act as a person who
is unwilling or unable to return to his country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account
of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or
The 1980 amendments made provision for both a regular flow and the
emergency admission of refugees, following legislatively prescribed consultation
with the Congress.
In addition, the law authorizes Federal assistance for
the resettlement of refugees.
Shortly after the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, large numbers of
Cubans entered the United States through Southern Florida, totalling an estimated 125,000, along with continuing smaller numbers of Haitians.
Administration was unwilling to classify either group as refugees, which would
have the effect of making them eligible for the Federal resettlement benefits
authorized by the 1980 legislation. Instead, the Administration sought special
legislation to meet the needs of these groups.
No action was taken on this
legislation during the 96th Congress, and the status of the entrants remains
The entire area of immigration and refugee policy is currently under
review by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, created for
this purpose by P.L. 95-412.
The 16-member Commission consists of four members
each of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, four Cabinet members, and
four members appointed by the President, including its Chairman, the Reverend
Theodore M. Hesburgh.
The Commission is to report to the President and the
Congress on its administrative and legislative recommendations by March 1,
The Select Commission's report may well be followed by a full-scale review
of U.S. immigration law and policy, including the problems of undocumented
workers and refugees.
Quoting from a Washington Post editorial on September 29,
It is already clear that the 1980s are going to be a period
when Americans grapple more closely than they have in 60
years with all the separate aspects of immigration: refugees,
legal immigrants, illegal immigrants--the works. A sense is
growing that although it is murderously difficult to deal with
all the parts at the same time, that is the only way in which
the competing values and interests can be fairly balanced off.
XZMIGMTION BY COU#IILT. FOR DECADES
1820-1978 1 /
ti gum repteaeat a l i e n parrengera arrived: Prom 1868-1891 a d 1895.1897. i d g r a n t a l i a
Data f o r yearn
arrived; f r a 1892-1891 and 1898 t o tlm preaent tip., fmdgrant a l i a a a d m i t t e d
p r i o r t o 1306 r e l a t e 8 t o country wheme a l i e n c w ; thereafter. t o counrrl, of l a r e p*raYnOnt
B e u u r e of c h a n g e r t n boundaries d ehaagea i n lfats-0: countries, data
f o r e a r t a i n countries is not cmqarable t h r b u g h ~ u t ~ l
Auarria-Hungary 2/ I/ ...........
F m c 8 ..........................
Great I r f t n i n : England ..........
Not specified i/ .
A l l countries
U.5.S.R. I / i/
0th- Aaia ......................
naxfco 91 .......................
Yeat Indies .....................
Central r(urfca .................
South A m e r l u ...................
Canada 6 Uuiarndlrnd /:
S u f m c m t e a a c oad of t a b l e
a u n w ) 21 21 ....................
Bolgarie 101 ......................
~ r . c h o a l ~ k l&I
P i n l a r d 2 1 ........................
cerauy y I/ .....................
Great B r l e a i n : Ensland ............
A l b a u h g/
L a M a 111 ........................
lithUaaZ 111 .....................
Noway 4/ .........................
P O W I
Not s p u l f i e d
u.s.s.n. 21 y ....................
Yu(lo.latia g /....................
J a p a n 71 ..........................
Other Aala ........................
I : : : :;
: : . : ;....::.:.
A : : .:: .: : : :
3. 3 3::.
p a zr 1 j f
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1977 Annual
Report, p. 43.
Bennett, Marion T. American immigration policies:
Public Affairs Press, 1963. 362 p.
Bernard, William S., ed. Immigration policy--a reappraisal.
Brothers, 1950. 341 p.
Divine, Robert A. American immigration policy, 1924-1952.
University Press, 1957. 220 p.
Gordon, Charles, and Harry N. Rosenfield.
ed. New York, Matthew Bender, 1980.
New Haven, Yale
Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1963.
Immigration as a factor in American history.
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959. 206 p.
Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1973.
Send these to me.
Harper, Elizabeth J. Immigration laws of the United States.
polis, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1975. 756 p.
New York, Harper
Immigration law and procedure.
----- , ed.
New York, Atheneum, 1975.
Strangers in the land, patterns of American nativism, 1860-1925.
Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1955. 431 p.
Immigration. Law and contemporary problems, Duke University School of Law,
v. 21, spring, 1956: 211-426.
Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American immigration.
Press, 1960. 358 p.
Chicago, University of Chicago
Rischin, Moses, ed. Immigration and the American tradition.
Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1976. 456 p.
Schwartz, Abba P. The Open society.
1968. 241 p.
New York, William Morrow & Co., Inc.,
Scott, Franklin D. The Peopling of America: perspectives on immigration.
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Taylor, Philip. The Distant magnet, European emigration to the U.S.A.
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Immigration Commission, with conclusions and recommendations and views
of the minority. U.S. Senate Doc. 747, 61st Congress, 3d session.
Washington, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1910-1911.
U.S. Interagency Task Force on Immigration Policy. Staff report. [Washington]
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U.S. President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization. Whom we shall
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I an N Reporter, v. 25,