How Did We Get Here?

By Madison Michna

The United States grew from a group of British settlers that were fleeing religious persecution from the Church of England into the diverse population that we see today. How did we get here?

Here is a brief overview of immigration and refugee policy in the United States.

Naturalization Act of 1790. “Any alien, being a free white person…” Law limited naturalization to immigrants who were free white persons of good character.

Fourteenth Amendment, 1868. “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” Gave citizenship to all persons born in the United States. Mainly intended to grant citizenship to African Americans and slaves that had been emancipated following the Civil War.

Naturalization Act of 1870. Extended naturalization process to “aliens of African nativity (origin) and to persons of African descent.” Other non-white persons remain excluded.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Financial and economic hardship resulted in banning Chinese laborers from immigrating for next ten years.  First law to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the US.

Immigration Act of 1917. Banned immigration from most Asian countries, minus the Philippines (a US colony) and Japan.

Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Increased immigration following the end of WWI coupled with high unemployment in America led to first law to create numerical quotas for immigration based on nationality. Capped total annual immigration at 350,000.

Immigration Act of 1924. Decreased annual cap to 165,000. Decreased nationality quotas further. Limited migration from eastern and southern European countries (predominantly Catholic). Denied entry to the US  anyone who is ineligible to become a citizen due to race, which included Arabs and Asians.

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the US.

Wagner-Rogers Bill, 1939. Would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children from Germany to enter the US  Never passed because it was outside America’s strict immigration quotas.

Magnuson Act, 1943. Repealed Chinese Exclusion Act. Gave a quota of 105 Chinese immigrants a year and Chinese Americans were eligible to nationalize.

Luce-Celler Act, 1946. Allowed quota of 100 Asian Indians and 100 Filipinos to immigrate per year. Allowed Filipino Americans and Indian Americans to naturalize.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Got rid of racial quotas but kept national origin quotas- discriminated against Catholics, Eastern Europeans, and Asians.

Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962. Program created to provide services for Cuban refugees. Formalized Cuban Refugee Program. Assisted individuals in the Western Hemisphere fleeing “persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion.”

Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. Rid of previous quotas that favored certain nationalities. More immigrants start coming from Asia and Latin America instead of Europe. New system favors family reunification and skilled immigrants over country quotas.

Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, 1975. Paved way for entrance of Indochinese refugees fleeing war violence  

Refugee Act of 1980. US adopts the United Nation’s refugee definition- a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution.”  Post Vietnam War, the US realizes it needs a more comprehensive refugee policy. Number of refugees US accepts every year goes from under 20,000 to 50,000. Office of Refugee Resettlement established to help refugees adjust to life.

Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986. Establishes pathways for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. Sanctions employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.

Immigration Act of 1990. Country opens up to more immigrants. Makes it easier for foreigners to come work in the US.

9/11. Dramatic drop off in refugee admissions and refugee program was suspended for two months, though none of the 9/11 hijackers were refugees. New security protocols put in place for refugee admission.

Homeland Security Act of 2002. Following 9/11, transfers nearly all functions of US Immigration and Naturalization Service to new Department of Homeland Security.

2006 Secure Fence Act. More than $1 billion for 700 miles of fencing along US-Mexico border. Trump uses this law to justify plans to expand the wall.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Attempt to overhaul immigration policy. Bulked up border patrol. Temporary worker program so that undocumented immigrants can live and work legally in the US for a time. Senate kills the bill.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, 2012.  Executive action by President Obama. Young adults (15-30) brought to the US illegally as children can apply for temporary deportation relief and a work permit. Currently on hold because of a legal challenge.

Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, 2014. Second executive action by President Obama. Allows unauthorized immigrant parents who have lived in the US at least five years and have children who are US. citizens or legal permanent residents to apply for deportation relief and three-year work permit. Currently on hold because of a legal challenge.

Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, 2017. Executive order by President Trump. Banned citizens from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days. Stopped admission of all refugees for four months. Banned all Syrian refugees. (Didn’t last. Federal court appeals. More to come.)    




Nebraska Studies

Pew Research


South Asian American Digital Archive

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

US Department of Health & Human Services

White House


policyTeam Refugepolicy, us