US Immigration Policy Throughout Time

America is a land of immigrants, to ignore that is to ignore the foundation of our society. In current news, immigration has been a hot topic for many presidential candidates and elect alike. The ambivalence of laws and public opinion regarding immigrants has made it very difficult for immigrants to feel any sense of security. America often forgets that there are many forms of and reasons for migration (refugee, work, the reunion of families, opportunity, education, etc.). At some points, we seem to realize and understand this, yet other times we turn on people in their time of need. To understand the archaeology of immigration we must first understand the history of immigration patterns, perception, and laws in the United States. In this article, I will outline a brief history of significant immigration laws and policies beginning in the 17th century, to our current reality.


During this time, the United States of America had recently gained independence from Britain and was a young country trying to find its way. Immigration was dramatically encouraged at this time, as people were needed to settle on the empty lands. As states were established throughout the century they each adopted their own immigration policies. The first significant law restricting immigration in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese workers were blamed for declining wages and economic failures on the West Coast. To placate workers and maintain “racial purity”, congress passed the exclusion act ( In 1876, the Supreme Court declared that the regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility. Legislation in 1891 and 1895 created the Bureau of Immigration (Historical Overview of Immigration Policy). 

1900 to 1950’s

From the early 20th century until the 1950s, 24 million immigrants arrived in the United States in what is called the “Great Wave”. Immigration from Europe was largely reduced following World War I, but mass immigration from other parts of the world resumed (Historical Overview of Immigration Policy). As a result, Congress passed the national-origins quota system, which established the nation’s first numerical limits on the number of immigrants who could enter (Closing the Door on Immigration (U.S. National Park Service)). This was designed to keep out “undesirable” ethnic groups and maintain America’s largely northern and western European population. The following 20 years had very little immigration due to the Great Depression, so labor from Mexico was imported through the Bracero Program.


In 1965 congress replaced the quota restrictions with the Immigration and Naturalization Act which was designed to unite immigrant families and attract skilled workers. Policymakers vastly underestimated the number of people that would immigrate, immigration nearly tripled each year following the legislation (“Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965”).


Preferential treatment of Europeans continued throughout immigration laws and policies, however, congress responded to refugees with special legislation. It wasn’t until 1980 that the Refugee Act was passed to specifically govern refugee admission. 

Another major law was passed by congress in 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This granted legalization to millions of unauthorized immigrants, mainly from Latin America, who met certain conditions (Cohn).


The Immigration Act of 1990 increased annual limits on immigration, revised visa category limits to increase skilled labor immigration and expanded and revised the grounds for removal and inadmissibility (Rasmussen). In addition, a diversity lottery was introduced to aid people who had been adversely affected by the quota restrictions enacted in 1965. 

However, in 1994, the United States took a controversy stand against illegal immigration south of the border. Prevention Through Deterrence, De León states, “relies on the use of hyper-security measures such as high fencing and hundreds of agents on the ground in unauthorized crossing areas around urban ports of entry” (A View From the Train Tracks). Illegal traffic was forced to travel a more hostile terrain, in honor of the lives lost, De León and many others have created projects to commemorate them (link Adriane’s case study article). Despite this, more than 5 million undocumented migrants have crossed into America, yet the journey killed more than 7,000 people, basically outsourcing border patrol agents jobs to the harsh environment.


On September 11, 2001, the public perception of immigration was sharply affected. A terrorist attack in which 20 foreign-born people caused the largest attack on American soil, illuminated the issues in America’s immigration system. As a result, there was an emphasis on American immigration law enforcement regarding border security and removing criminal aliens to protect the nation (Post-9/11). 

In 2007 the American senate attempted to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act which “would have given a path to citizenship to the large majority of illegal entrants in the country, significantly increased legal immigration and increased enforcement” (Historical Overview of Immigration Policy). However, this bill was largely unpopular among the American public as views of immigrants steadily became more and more negative.

2010’s – Obama

Throughout Barack Obama’s 2010 presidential campaign he made many promises to reform America’s immigration system, however much of his plans were halted by the intransigent congress. Unfortunately, great immigration reform in America will not be what Obama is remembered for, but he did enact some legislation to protect DREAMERs (American Immigration Council Staff). 

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)

In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order creating DACA. DACA changed the lives of many young immigrants, specifically those brought into the United States as children, and were raised and educated here. This initiative removed the constant threat of deportation and fear that these individuals faced every day. As of this year, 740,000 people have benefitted from this program (American Immigration Council Staff). However, this legislation has been battled by congress, the following president, and people who don’t think migrants should be granted these rights


In the past, immigration enforcement in the United States has looked like workplace raids and targeting all undocumented immigrants. He refocused America’s enforcement by instead penalizing employers and targeting people that posed threats to society (American Immigration Council Staff). In the book titled Collateral Damage: an Examination of ICEs Fugitive Operations Program, the authors put it best by stating the United States apprehended “the easiest targets, not the most dangerous fugitives” (Page 2). 


Despite Obama’s seemingly pro-immigration stance throughout the media, America actually saw record-high deportation numbers. During his 8 years in office, there were more than 2.7 million deportations, of which 91% were previously convicted of a crime (Marshall). “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day,” Obama said in November 2014 when he first announced his executive action.


Thousands of migrants mainly from Central America flee the violence ensuing in their home countries, seeking asylum in the United States. A study from the UN’s refugee agency estimated that 65.3 million people worldwide have been displaced due to persecution and conflict (Edwards).

Although Obama is the leading president of deportations in the United States, a large majority were criminals. He believed in keeping families together and making this country just a bit safer. His policies such as DACA made immigrants in America feel safer for a short time.

2010’s – Trump & The Wall

Donald Trump’s radical presidential campaign was propped up on the back of immigration policy. He united the right with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and infamous “Build the Wall” slogan. His remarks gained publicity throughout the country and sparked countless debates and unrest. Perhaps Trump’s most controversial quote was proclaimed on June 16, 2015, in Trump Tower, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” (Phillips). However, a study by the Migration Policy Institute in 2015 found that “evidence indicates that immigration does not correlate with higher crime rates” (Maciag). We’ve become numb to this rhetoric, we are no longer surprised by his outrageous and harmful words.

Birthright Citizenship

Birthright citizenship is also referred to by many as ‘anchor babies’. Birthright citizenship is citizenship to any child born in the US, regardless of parents’ citizenship, under the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment. On October 30th, 2018 Trump stated by means of an executive order that he planned to remove this (Silva).

Border Security & Wall

Trump made border security and illegal immigration a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. His solution? Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. An idea that millions of American’s fully supported, despite the lack of an actionable plan. However, Trump managed to get his wish of a wall (with some fences), paid for by American’s. On September 12th, 2017 the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a notice that they would be waiving certain laws and regulations to begin construction of the wall (Hand). What certain laws were bypassed you may ask?

  • The National Environmental Policy Act
  • The Endangered Species Act
  • The Clean Water Act
  • The Clean Air Act
  • The National Historic Preservation Act
  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • The Migratory Bird Conservation Act
  • The Archaeological Resources Protection Act
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act
  • The Noise Control Act
  • The Solid Waste Disposal Act
  • The Antiquities Act
  • The Federal Land Policy and Management Act
  • The Administrative Procedure Act
  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
  • The American Indian Religious Freedom Act 

All of these acts and laws that we have determined to be fair and justified are now overlooked and violated by the United States government to build a wall a large majority of people don’t even support.

As public opinion on immigration changes throughout the decades, laws are changed to reflect this. First, we have a land of immigrants, all are welcome (at least if you’re European), then all immigrants are criminals. What is it that determines who we consider to be “outsiders”? Aren’t we all born from immigrants (excluding Native Americans) who journeyed to the “land of opportunity”? It is clear that every country needs restrictions on immigration, but it is the way we perceive and criminalize people based on the color of their skin and country of origin. Some people would say that legal status is what makes you an “insider”, others say shared language or even political and social engagement (Jones-Correa). But this is not always true. African American’s were imported as goods to be bought and sold, even hundreds of years of forced assimilation into American culture they are perceived by many as “outsiders”. Even Hispanics that legally migrate to the United States are told they are “rapists” and “criminals”, by someone who claims to be the leader of this nation. We must remember that America was built on the backs of immigrants, that we are a land of immigrants, and on that basis, to turn them away is inherently unamerican. So what can we do? Be critical of what you hear. Stay educated. Speak up for marginalized and oppressed groups. And above all, in a time of so much unrest, try to be compassionate. It is easy to be caught up in all the anger and confusion we are faced with every day, but remember that we are all people. We all want a better life, and turning on one another is not the solution.

We will never be a united nation until we realize the harm our actions and words have on others. All men are created equal, and as such under the American Constitution, have equal opportunity and pursuit of happiness. If we have learned anything from our history, let it be “a nation divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln). 


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“Closing the Door on Immigration (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed May 28, 2020.

Cohn, D’Vera. “How U.S. Immigration Laws and Rules Have Changed through History.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, September 30, 2015.

Edwards, Adriane. “Global Forced Displacement Hits Record High.” The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, 20 June 2016,

Hand, Mark. “Homeland Security Waives Environmental Review for California Border Project.” ThinkProgress, 12 Sept. 2017,

Historical Overview of Immigration Policy Center for Immigration Studies ., accessed May 22, 2020 Staff. “Chinese Exclusion Act.” A&E Television Networks, August 24, 2018.

“Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed May 28, 2020.

Jones-Correa, Michael. “Crossing the Line Between ‘Immigrant’ and ‘American’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2012,

León, Jason De, and Eduardo García. “A View From the Train Tracks.” SAPIENS. Austin Shipman, October 2, 2018.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stehen A. Douglas … : Abraham Lincoln , Stephen Arnold Douglas : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Follett, Foster Andcompany, 1 Jan. 1860, 

Maciag, Michael. “The Mythical Link Between Immigrants and High Crime Rates.” Governing, 2 Mar. 2017, 

Marshall, Serena. “Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 29 Aug. 2016, 

Mendelson, Margot, Shayna L. Strom, and Michael Wishnie. Collateral Damage: an Examination of ICEs Fugitive Operations Program. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2009.

Mohamed, Heather Silber, and Emily M. Farris. “Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States.” Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets, 2017.

Moritz, John C., Aileen B. Flores, Brandon Loomis, Daniel González, and Gustavo Solis. “The Wall – An in-Depth Examination of Donald Trump’s Border Wall.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. Accessed May 22, 2020.

Office of the Press Secretary. “FACT SHEET: Immigration Accountability Executive Action.” The White House, Nov 20, 2014., accessed May 19, 2020.

Phillips, Amber. “Analysis | ‘They’re Rapists.’ President Trump’s Campaign Launch Speech Two Years Later, Annotated.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 June 2017,

“Post-9/11.” USCIS, September 23, 2013.

Rasmussen, Scott. “Immigration Act of 1990.” Ballotpedia. Ballotpedia, March 21, 2017.

Silva, Chantal Da. “Trump Says He Plans to Sign an Executive Order to End Birthright Citizenship.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 30 Oct. 2018,

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