Brief History of Immigration in The U.S. | Visas.AI
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Brief History of Immigration in The U.S.

17th Mar 2023

The “Illegal” and “Legal” Immigration concepts were not present during the establishment of the United States. Occupied by Native Americans, European settlers and African slaves began to settle the land which did not belong to them in the 1700s when America was becoming an independent nation.

Immigration Takeaways

  1. 1924 Immigration Act

    • 1924 Immigration Act: This act imposed strict quotas on immigrants based on their nationality and ethnicity as well as literacy tests.
  2. Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1960s

    • Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1960s: This act abolished such discriminatory practices and allowed for a variety of skilled workers to come to the United States from all over the world.
  3. Truman Directive of 1945

    • Truman Directive of 1945: This directive sought to make sure that those fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe could find refuge in America.
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board

    • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board: Established in 1944, this board was designed to help refugees who had already arrived in the United States obtain permanent residence status.
  5. Baby Boomers leaving the workforce

    • Baby Boomers leaving the workforce: With the huge population of baby boomers aging out of the labour force, many businesses are struggling to fill those gaps with qualified personnel.
  6. Upholding the spirit of blame towards immigrants

    • Upholding the spirit of blame towards immigrants: Despite laws ending punitive practices towards certain immigrants, some people still share feelings of animosity and sometimes outright blame towards foreigners.

Origin of U.S. Immigration

Mainly originating from Northern and Western Europe and Protestant in faith, the settlers of this new nation had strong biases against the Southern and Eastern Europeans who were Catholic as well as against Chinese immigrants who began to settle in America during the mid-to-late 19th century.

Before 1882, there were only local and state laws that were related to immigration. The first federal law regarding immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which aimed to placate racist sentiments against Chinese immigrants by banning them from entering the U.S., with exceptions for students and diplomats.

About ten years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 further restricted immigration into America. This act banned “undesirables” such as alcoholics, beggars, and all persons ‘mentally or physically defective’, as well as those over 16 who were illiterate. Additionally, it barred almost all immigrants from Asia from entering the U.S.
Continuing the exclusion of Asian immigrants, the 1924 Immigration Act prohibited all people who had not been naturalized by the 1790 Naturalization Act from entering into America. In effect, this only affected Asians as other groups such as Mexicans, black Americans and Native Americans had already received citizenship rights before this law was passed.

Immigration and Ethnicity in the U.S. After 1924

The Nationality Act of 1924 established a distinct ethnic hierarchy in the United States, giving preferences to those from western, Protestant, European backgrounds. This meant that Germany had an annual quota of over 51,000 while Great Britain had one of 34,000 – both considerably higher than Italy’s less than 4000.

This act was part of a larger effort to limit immigration from certain countries and to prioritize immigrants from others. It also created a system that favored white immigrants over non-white immigrants. The effects of this policy were felt for decades and still have implications today.

The Nationality Act of 1924 was part of a larger trend towards restricting immigration in the US. This trend has continued throughout history with various laws and policies being enacted to limit immigration from certain countries or regions. These policies have had long-lasting impacts on the demographics and culture of the US, creating an environment where certain ethnicities are favored over others.

Immigration is an important issue in the US today and it is important to understand how our current laws and policies are shaped by our past decisions. The Nationality Act of 1924 is just one example of how our immigration system has been used to create a distinct ethnic hierarchy within our country.

The initial law to introduce nationality-based quotas, purportedly in response to the perceived “crisis” of too many non-Anglo Saxon immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described this act as “good for America”; however, Mae M. Ngai, a professor of Asian American studies and history at Columbia University, vehemently disagrees – she believes that it is an indelible stain on our collective history.
After the 1924 Immigration Act, a distinct ethnic hierarchy was implemented and preferences were given to those from western, Protestant, European backgrounds. Germany had an annual quota of over 51,000 while Great Britain had one of 34,000 – both considerably higher than Italy’s less than 4000. Quotas for countries such as Greece, Turkey and Syria were given a paltry amount: 100 per year.

The Hart-Celler Immigration Act

The 1960s capped the number of visas issued to any one nation at seven percent. This marked the first time that nations from within the Americas, such as Mexico, also faced a quota restriction. In doing so, it prevented Mexican immigrants from being able to freely cross the border in search of work and instead labelled them as ‘illegal’.
The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation that completely changed the face of immigration in the United States. It abolished the quota system based on national origin and replaced it with a new system that focused on family reunification and skills-based immigration. This allowed for greater diversity in the immigrant population, as people from all nations were now able to come to the US without facing discrimination. The Act also set up a visa lottery system which provided an opportunity for those who did not qualify under other categories to gain entry into the US.
The Hart-Celler Immigration Act was an important step forward in terms of civil rights and equality, as it removed restrictions based on race and national origin. It enabled immigrants from all over the world to come to America in search of better opportunities, regardless of their background or ethnicity. This has had a lasting impact on American society, as today’s population is more diverse than ever before due to this historic law.

Discrimination & Presidential Initiatives

The act reduced discrimination of earlier iterations but maintained the advantages and disadvantages for certain immigrants. In place of ethnicity, family connections, professional training and education were used to determine an individual’s eligibility.
In 1944, under the directive of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the War Refugee Board was formed to assist in the rescue of Jews from World War II-ravaged Europe. Through this board as well as assistance from organizations such as the American Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress, tens of thousands of Jews were able to be rescued. As a result, the United States became almost equal to Palestine in terms of relocation destination for displaced Jewish people after the war.
Through his directive in 1945, President Harry S. Truman set immigration quotas for the following year which provided preference to those persecuted by Nazi Germany who were located in U.S. zones of occupation at that time. This initiative enabled around 35,000 to 40,000 displaced persons, primarily Jews, to enter the U.S. between December 1945 and July 1948.
In 1948, Congress, due to pressure from American Jewish organizations, increased the limit to allow 202,000 displaced persons into the country. Of these, 80,000 were Jews. While America welcomed Jewish individuals impacted by the Holocaust with open arms, other groups were not as widely accepted.


Immigration has been a source of prosperity to the United States, yet it has also been used as a scapegoat. The idea of blaming immigrants for taking jobs or lowering wages is an unfortunate part of America’s history that is still alive today. Unless we can accept those different from us and embrace them as part of our nation, we will not live up to our potential as a great country. Unfortunately, the concept of immigration has become tainted for some; however, such a way of thinking is narrow-minded and misguided.
We are on the verge of losing baby boomers from the labour force, and our current immigration regulations make it difficult for companies to acquire the skilled personnel they need in order to remain competitive. Due to these factors, it is probable that we will soon have to raise immigration levels.