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A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Historical Overview - Immigration

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.

Historical Overview - Immigration

The history of emigration to the United States since 1778 has had multiple stages and was the result of multiple factors, both within the United States, and the immigrants' country of origin.  There are multiple factors that cause emigration, including war or other social upheaval, lack of employment, economic instability, and natural disasters. There are multiple distinct eras of immigration in the United States:  the revolutionary era until the end of the Civil War; the industrial era, the era of the World Wars, post-World War II, and post-9/11.  The United States policy on immigration has varied widely throughout its history, which has created continual change in immigration law.   Federal government policy has alternately been guided by public sentiment, but has also driven public perception of immigrants and immigration in the United States.1


Revolutionary Era to the Civil War

Until the break from England, he Crown did attempt to regulate and limit immigration into the Colonies.  This regulation became a source of political and social tension within the Colonies. Upon establishing its independence from England the United States Congress passed an immigration act in 1790.  This Naturalization Act allowed white and free immigrants to gain naturalized citizenship after having lived within the boundaries of the United States for two years.  The Naturalization Act of 1795 included the stipulation that all immigrants must reject any allegiance to any foreign head of state or government and banned British citizens who fought against the United States in the Revolutionary war.  It also raised the occupancy period to five years.  

Immigration and naturalization policy continued to change and evolve in response to various political and social pressures through the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century.  By 1803 the geographical reach of the United States had been greatly expanded westward through the Louisiana Purchase, and its southern boundary had been expanded by the seizing of Florida from Spain.  By 1845 the United States had grown to include the territory of Texas, as well as the Oregon territory.  In response, the immigration policies of the United States were modified in order to promote settlement of these new territories.  From 1800 - 1850, emigration from Europe increased greatly.  This expansion in immigration was the result of various forms of social and political upheaval in Europe.  From 1820 -1860 95% of immigrants in the United States originated from northern Europe.  From the 1830s to the 1850s the total number of immigrants to the United States rose from approximately 151,000 to 1.7 million.  The majority of these immigrants were Irish, German, and British.  Emigration from China to the west coast also increased during this time period.  by 1860 Chinese immigrants constituted approximately 25% of California's population.  By 1882 Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended all emigration from China.  Concurrent to this exclusion, emigration from European countries was actively solicited by the United States via the Homestead Ace of 1862.  This act granted land tracts to naturalized citizens for a nominal price of $1.25 per acre.  In 1864 Congress passed the Act to Encourage Immigration, which established the office of Commissioner of Immigration and outlawed compulsory military service for male immigrants.


The Industrial Era

This era is also known as the "great wave" of immigration.  This is due to the enormous growth in immigration, which resulted in approximately 23 million immigrants settling in the United States.  The majority of immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Scandinavia.  However, large numbers of immigrants were non-European.  While pale in comparison to immigration from Europe, approximately one million immigrants arrived from Japan, Turkey, and Mexico.  In addition, non-Protestant religious groups, including Catholics and Jews immigrated to the United States during this time period.  Immigration during the industrial era was not merely a result of favorable policies enacted by the United States government, but also of political unrest, discrimination, and fragile economies in the immigrants' home countries.  

This era is also marked by the increase in anti-immigration reactions and xenophobia.  Controls on immigration were proposed in Congress and there was a concurrent rise in anti-immigrant actions and demonstrations.  The rate of immigration slowed briefly in the 1890s, dropping from approximately 5.2 million immigrants to 3.6 million.  However, by 1910 immigration had increased to 9 million.  This was followed by a constriction of immigration in the first two decades before the era of the World Wars.  The Dillingham Commission released a lengthy study of the immigrant question, which differentiated between "desirable" and "undesirable" immigrants, based upon ethnicity, race, and religion, with northern European Protestants being favored over southern or eastern European Catholics and Jews, with non-European immigrants considered highly undesirable.  The Immigration Act of 1917 implemented many of the recommendations of the Dillingham Commission and created the requirement of a literacy test for immigrants.


The World Wars

The first two decades of the 20th century ushered in a dramatic shift of attitude toward immigration, ending the era of mass immigration in the United States.  Multiple national and international events coalesced into an increasing sense of nationalism and racial and class demarcations within American society.  This nationalism greatly influenced the legislative endeavors of Congress, resulting in two acts that would set the tone for immigration in the United States.  This tone has continued to the present. 

The early 20th century is marked by the mass geo-political upheaval, exemplified by the Russian Revolution. This unrest influenced the social and political policy towards immigration in the United States.  Europe experienced destabilization from multiple arenas, including the demise of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.  World War I erupted after many years of unrest in the Balkans.  In Italy, the destabilization of the economy resulting from the 1861 unification continued.  Italian immigrants totaled 3.2 million from 1901 - 1920.  Immigration from the Austro-Hungarian Empire totaled three million from 1901 - 1920 and approximately 2.7 million people immigrated from Russia during the same time period.  This number of non-Protestant, non-northern European immigrants, along with the political upheaval capped by the inclusion of the United States into international politics during World War I, created a nationalistic and xenophobic back lash in the United States.  This was reflected in two pieces of immigration legislation - the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.  

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 introduced a formulation that capped the total number of immigrants admitted into the United States to 3% of the total population of immigrants from the same home country as reported in the 1910 U.S. Census, per year.  The cap on nationality did not apply to professionals or immigrants from Latin America.  Asian immigration was maintained, as defined under the Immigration Act of 1917, which limited immigration to Japanese or peoples from the Philippine Islands.  The Immigration Act of 1924 maintained the formulation, but lowered the percentage to 2% and based the percentage on the total number of home countries on the 1890 U.S. Census.  In addition, it prohibited immigration for those who would be ineligible for naturalization, which effectively ended Japanese immigration, as well as instituted the preferences system.  The Acts of 1921 and 1924 drastically reduced the number of immigrations from Eastern and Southern Europe, the countries of the former Ottoman Empire, Russia, and obliterated immigration from Asia.  From 1925 - 1930 the total number of immigrants decreased to 1.7 million; 53% arrived from Europe and 45% arrived from Central and South America.  From 1931 - 1945 the total number of immigrants was further reduced to 669,000; 57% came from Europe and 38% came from the Americas.  As a result of the new restrictions on immigration and naturalization the rate of emigration out of the United States totaled over one million persons.  

Immigration policy was further complicated by the end of World War II, which created an unprecedented refugee and displaced persons crisis.  It is estimated that 8 million people in Europe were displaced during the war, including people in German concentration camps and prisons and large populations leaving Eastern Europe due to the specter of Russian occupation, as well as those displaced by the war itself.  The United States also had to contend with peoples of the former Axis powers who had important scientific, technical, and governmental knowledge.  The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 attempted to address the various issues created by the end of the war.  

For the purposes of the Act, a displaced person was defined by Annex I, Part 1, Section A and B of the Constitution of the International Refugee Organization.  The Constitution differentiated between refugees and displaced persons.  A refugee was any person who was a victim of Nazi or fascist regimes and the allies or "quislings" of such countries, or similar regimes; Spanish republicans and victims of the Falangist regime; persons who were considered refugees before the war.  A displaced person was defined as any person who was deported from, or who was obliged to leave, his or her country of nationality or permanent residence due to the actions of Germany and the fascist regimes of Italy and Spain.  The Displaced Persons Act also covered those who entered Germany, Austria, or Italy by January of 1948, or Czechoslovakians.  Approximately 400,000 displaced person visas were issued to the United States; preference was given to those who had particularized scientific and technological skills.  Members of the former fascist regimes were eligible for visas under the program.  President Harry Truman stated in his signing statement that the act continues "a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice...the bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith" and "excludes many displaced persons of the Catholic faith who deserve admission."   


Post-War Immigration

The issue of immigration of displaced persons remained for several years after the end of World War II and it would be compounded by the fall of the Iron Curtain, which enveloped the eastern half of Germany, as well as Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Albania as Soviet satellite states, and the emergence of the Cold War and a strong anti-communist movement in the United States government.  In 1952 protections against communist ideology would be memorialized in immigration policy through the McCarran-Walter Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.  This Act allowed the United States to exclude emigration from "ideologically undesirable countries." (Cieslik, et al)  However, the Act also ended the restriction of emigration from Asian and Pacific countries, as well as determinations based on race or sex and it included as natural-born citizens those persons born in the United States' territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands on or after December 24th, 1952.  However, a quota system was maintained, but it did not apply to immigrants with special skills or family members of U.S. citizens.  General immigration was capped at 270,000 persons per year.  The Refugee Relief Act, which passed in 1953 and supplanted the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, negated the quota cap for refugees, escapees, and expellees.  Under these early post war acts immigration remained low compared to the great migrations of the latter half of the 19th century, despite the massive upheaval caused by World War II.  The total number of admitted legal permanent residents remained relatively low during the first decade after the War with slight increases in 1956 (321,625) and in 1957 (326,867).  However, the composition of immigrants remained heavily European during the 1950s and the 1960s. 

The quota system created in 1921 terminated with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  In its place a preference system was instituted, which was not defined by race, sex, gender, ancestry, or national origin.  The preferences, ranked from highest to lowest, were:

  1. Unmarried children of U.S. citizens
  2. Spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents
  3. Professionals of exceptional ability
  4. Married children of U.S. citizens
  5. Siblings of U.S. citizens
  6. Skilled and unskilled workers in short supply
  7. Refugees

In addition, the total number of immigrant visas allowed within the preference system was capped at 170,000 for origins in the Eastern hemisphere and 120,000 for the Western hemisphere.  The new scheme resulted in an increase of immigration from Asian countries.  The preference system has remained, but the specifics have changed through various amendments and new iterations of immigration legislation throughout the last decades of the 20th century.  

However, the issue of refugees remained at the fore of immigration debate due to the impact of the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and Cuba's revolution in the late 1950s.  Approximately 450,000 refugees fled Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. Of that number, approximately 147,000 were Cambodians fleeing the terror of the Khmer Rouge, which came to power after the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam in 1975.  Approximately 260,000 Hmong fled from Laos and a much smaller number (approximately 40,000) Degar people fled Vietnam.  In 1980 a brief period of mass migration from Cuba to the United States occurred after the announcement by President Fidel Castro of Cuba that any Cuban who wished to emigrate to the United States could do so by leaving by boat at Mariel Harbor.  From April to September of 1980 approximately 124,000 Cuban refugees arrived in Florida via boat.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s refugees remained a source of contention within the discussion of immigration policy in the United States.  The United States became the destination for persons fleeing from instability and civil war in Central and South America, as well as escapees and emigres from Soviet bloc countries.  The problem of refugees coming to the United States was compounded by the increase of illegal immigration into the United States from South and Central America.  The 1980 Census estimated the total number of illegal immigrants in the United States to be between 2 and 4 million persons. 

In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control  Act (IRCA), which attempted to address illegal immigration through amnesty programs for illegal immigrants, as well as criminalizing the hiring of illegal aliens as workers and instituting the I-9 form for all employees.  Four years after the passage of IRCA, Congress passed a new act - the Immigration Act of 1990, also known as IMMACT.  IMMACT negated the immigration caps based on hemisphere and instituted a total number cap of 675,000 persons, with 480,000 spots designated for family members of United States citizens; 140,000 designated for employment-based immigrants, and 55,000 for "diversity" immigrants.  IMMACT also provided an 18 month period of protected status for immigrants from El Salvador. In addition, IMMACT transferred authority for naturalizations from the United States Courts to the United States Attorney's office.  It expanded the number and type of deportable actions and increased border protection.  

Despite the new legislation immigration rose continuously from 1989 to 1993, with a total number of immigrants of 603,000 in 1989 to 971,000 in 1993.  The majority of immigrants were family members of United States citizens, with humanitarian immigrants and refugees rounding out the majority of legal immigrants.  Illegal immigration remained at the fore of immigration debates throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.  Various acts were instituted to address illegal immigration, which increased funding for border patrol, and denied Federal services for illegal aliens, and denied states the ability to provide services to illegal immigrants.  From 1994 - 2000 the total number of legal immigrants fluctuated: in 1994 the total number of legal immigrants was 803,000; in 1995 the total number had dropped to 720,000; in 1996 the number increased to 915,000; in 1997 the total number dropped to 797,000; in 1996 the total number dropped again to 653,000 and remained relatively constant at 644,000 for 1999; in 2000 the number increased to 841,000.  



The first year of the new millennium ushered in a large increase in total immigration.  From 841,000 immigrants in 2000, 2001 ended with a total number of one million legal immigrants.  This number essentially remained unchanged in 2002, but the total number of immigrants dropped precipitously in 2003 to 703,000.  This drop was a direct result of the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  In response to the perceived vulnerabilities after the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania Congress quickly passed the Patriot Act.  Title IV, "Protecting the Border," attempts to address the vulnerabilities posed by immigration and non-permanent residents through implementation of heightened surveillance of those in the United States under a student visa and provides the Department of State and Immigration and Nationalization Service increased access to databases maintained by other departments for the purpose of background and criminal checks.  Title IV also strengthened border patrol.  

In 2002 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was founded as a result of the reorganization of multiple agencies under the Homeland Security Act of 2002.  Many immigration and naturalization functions were brought under the umbrella of the DHS, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These new agencies use various technologies to monitor the entry of non-U.S. citizens.  The preference system for legal immigration created in the 1960s remains in place.  Despite further restrictions put on the eligibility requirements under the Patriot Act for legal immigration, the total number of legal immigrants grew in the two years after its passage in 2002.  By 2004, the total number of immigrants had risen to 957,000; in 2005, the number had increased again to 1.1 million; by 2006 the total number had risen to 1.2 million.  In 2007 the number declined to one million, and has remained at approximately one million immigrants up until the last collection date available of 2014. (For more information on current immigration preference scheme see "Becoming a Citizen.")

Illegal immigration continues to be a major component of the current discussion on immigration in the United States.  The Pew Research Center has reported that there are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, which constitutes 5% of the work force. The DREAM Act, originally introduced in 2001, was an attempt to provide a means by which persons who do not have a legal status, but who were brought to the United States as minors, could apply for legal permanent status, leading to naturalization.  Despite multiple efforts throughout the first decade of the 21st century the Act was not passed.  The state of California passed its own version of a "dream" act, which allows for undocumented students who graduated from a California high school to attend public college in California at the in-state tuition rate.  For a student to participate, he or she is required to have legal immigration status, or the ability to apply for a legal status once eligible to do so.  

The failure of the DREAM Act to be passed by Congress instigated action by the Executive branch.  President Obama issued a policy memorandum in 2012 entitled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.  This policy provides a 2-year deferment from deportation action for successful applicants.  The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has reported that it accepted 1.5 million applications from 2012 - 2016; of that number, 667,000 were renewal applications.  Of that 1.5 million, 1.3 million were approved. (See the sections within "Current Issues On Immigration and Refugees" for more information on DACA and the DREAM Act.)

1All information gathered from Immigration: A Documentary and Reference Guide, Thomas Cieslik, David Felsen, and Akis Kalaitzidiz, eds. Greenwood Press, 2009, unless where otherwise linked or specified.  Total numbers given have been rounded down to nearest 1,000.  


Selected Library Resources:

  • Kunal Madhukar Parker, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600-2000, KF4700 .P39 2015
  • John R. Vile, American Immigration and Citizenship: A Documentary History, JV6450 .V55 2016
  • Marilyn C. Baseler, "Asylum for Mankind:" America, 1607-1800, JV6451 .B37 1998 (available from the Founders Library)
  • Dorothee Schneider, Crossing Borders: Migration and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century United States, JV6450 .S345 2011 (available from the Founders Library)
  • Gary Gerstle and John H. Mollenkopf, eds., E Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation, JV6450 .P58 2001
  • Sofia E. Álvarez and Martin G. Urbina, eds., Immigration and the Law: Race, Citizenship, and Social Control, KF4819 .I47135 2018
  • Gabriel J. Chin and Rose C. Villazor, eds., The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Legislating a New America, KF4819 .I4713 2015
  • Ben Herzog, Revoking Citizenship: Expatriation in America from the Colonial Era to the War on Terror, KF4715 .H47 2015


Additional Resources:


Selected Research Databases: