Historical Overview of Immigration Policy

Return to the Immigration History topic page.


Immigration has played an important role in American history, and the United States continues to have the most open immigration policy in the world. Before the era of rapid communications and transportation, America encouraged relatively open immigration to settle its empty lands. After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1876 declared the regulation of immigration to be a federal responsibility. Legislation in 1891 and 1895 created the Bureau of Immigration.

From 1900 to 1920, nearly 24 million immigrants arrived during what is known as the “Great Wave”. The outbreak of World War I reduced immigration from Europe, but mass immigration resumed upon the war's conclusion, and Congress responded with a new immigration policy: the national-origins quota system passed in 1921 and revised in 1924. Immigration was limited by assigning each nationality a quota based on its representation in past U.S. census figures. This quota favored immigrants from Northwestern Europe in particular. Congress also created the U.S. Border Patrol within the Bureau of Immigration in 1924.

There was very little immigration over the next 20 years, with net immigration actually dropping below zero for several years during the Depression. Immigration remained relatively low during the 20 years following World War II, because the 1920s national-origins system remained in place after Congress re-codified and combined all previous immigration and naturalization law into the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. American agriculture continued to import seasonal labor from Mexico, as they had during the war, under a 1951 formal agreement between the United States and Mexico that made the Bracero Program permanent.

In 1965, Congress replaced the national origins system with a preference system designed to unite immigrant families and attract skilled immigrants to the United States. This bill drastically shifted the source countries of immigrants away from Northwestern Europe. The majority of applicants for immigration visas in the following decades started coming from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe. As a result of this legislation, the number of immigrants arriving each year would more than triple from approximately 320,000 in the 1960s to over a million per year by the 21st century.

The preference system continued to limit the number of immigration visas available each year, however, and Congress still responded to refugees with special legislation. Not until the Refugee Act of 1980 did the United States have a general policy governing the admission of refugees.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). This legislation had two major facets: amnesty and enforcement. IRCA provided amnesty to aliens who had completed one of two stipulations: they had resided continually in the U.S. since January 1982 or they had completed 90 days of agricultural work between May 1985 and May 1986. The acceptance rate for amnesty applications was about 94 percent, eventually giving legal status to approximately 3 million. It is estimated that one-fourth of the cases accepted were fraudulent. In 2000, IRCA was extended through Late Amnesty, which allowed those fighting their original denial to reapply. As of June 2007, 15,000 Late Amnesty cases are still pending from IRCA. The 1986 legislation also contained enforcement provisions to prevent future illegal entry. The provisions prohibited the hiring and harboring of illegal aliens, but few resources were allocated to enforce these laws. Poor funding essentially tied the hands of enforcement officials. This created a lopsided ‘grand compromise’ that fueled later generations of illegal aliens.

In 1990, Congress again reformed immigration statutes. The 1990 Immigration Act modified and expanded the 1965 act; it significantly increased the total level of immigration to 700,000, increasing available visas 40 percent. The act retained family reunification as the major entry path, while more than doubling employment-related immigration. The law also provided for the admission of immigrants from "underrepresented" countries to increase the diversity of the immigrant flow by creating a lottery system. The 1990 Act also mandated a study of immigration, later known as the Jordan Commission.

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, named after its Chairwoman, former Rep. Barbra Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave.” From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable workers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). The act added to border controls by mandating the hiring of more Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. Repercussions for entering the country illegally were increased and a border fence was planned for San Diego. An automated employment verification pilot program was created in the hopes of easing worksite enforcement. The Act also allowed state police officers to enforce immigration law using the 287(g) program. Although the IIRIRA boosted de jure enforcement, poor funding again hindered the actual enforcement of the laws.

Also during the 1990s, Congress passed a series of four smaller amnesties. The first, the Section 245(i) amnesty, was passed in 1994 and pardoned approximately 578,000 illegal aliens who were each fined $1,000. This amnesty was later renewed in 1997 and again in 2000. The second, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), was passed in 1997 and gave legal status to approximately one million illegal aliens, mostly from Central America, who had lived in the U.S. since 1995. In 1998, the Haitian Refugee Immigration and Fairness Act (HRIFA) passed after it was argued that excluding Haitians from NACARA was discriminatory. The most recent amnesty, passed in 2000, was the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act (LIFE). The LIFE Act was a mini-amnesty aimed at those illegal aliens who hoped to become green card holders through marriage, employment or other categories, but who were not anywhere near approval yet, due to the long line of people ahead of them. It was sold as a way around the growing processing backlogs that were the result of previous amnesties. During the time of this legislation, from 1994 to 2000, millions of hopeful legal immigrants waited in line overseas.

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 sharply affected the public’s perspective on immigration. A total of 20 foreign-born terrorists were involved, 19 of whom took part in the attack that caused 2,974 civilian deaths. The terrorists had entered the country on tourist or student visas. Four of them, however, had violated the terms of their visas and became illegal aliens. The attack exposed long-standing holes in our immigration system that included failures at visa processing, internal enforcement, and information sharing.

In 2006 the issue of immigration reform was once again discussed in Congress, with the House of Representatives and the Senate producing conflicting bills. In December of 2005, the House passed the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which was sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The act was limited to enforcement and focused on both the border and the interior. In the Senate, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (CIRA) was sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and passed in May 2006. CIRA would have given amnesty to a majority of illegal aliens already in the country as well as dramatically increased legal immigration. Although the bills passed their respective chambers, no compromise bill emerged.

In 2007, the Senate again attempted to pass amnesty legislation. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, 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. The act, which had bipartisan support in the Senate, was widely unpopular with the American public. As the result of unprecedented public pressure, the bill failed to pass a cloture vote, essentially killing it.

Despite his promise to pass a major immigration bill during his first year in office, President Obama’s first major act on immigration came in August 2012. The president announced an executive order entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which resulted in renewable two-year grants of protection from deportation—plus work permits and identity documents—for approximately 700,000 illegal aliens who arrived in the country as children.

In 2013, a bipartisan group of eight senators known as the “Gang of Eight” drafted a major piece of amnesty legislation entitled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 which would have provided a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million illegal aliens in the country, including the DACA recipients. The bill sought to drastically increase the size of visa programs, including lifting the high-skilled H-1B visa cap to from 65,000 to as high as 180,000 per year, depending upon demand, and creating a new W-visa for an additional 200,000 low-skilled workers. In exchange, the bill promised increased border security and mandatory E-Verify for all employers. Despite passing the Senate 68-32, the bill saw significant grassroots resistance, was not considered by the House, and died in the 113th Congress.

The following year, President Obama announced an additional executive order entitled Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) in November 2014. This would have granted three-year, renewable work permits and exemption from deportation to illegal aliens with children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. Approximately 3.6 million aliens would have been eligible. However, multiple states filed lawsuits against the federal government and a temporary injunction in February 2015 blocked DAPA from going into effect while the lawsuits proceeded.

The 2016 presidential election saw Donald Trump win in an unexpected victory, with immigration at the forefront of his campaign message. On the campaign trail, Trump made a wide range of promises regarding immigration. Among those promises: Build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, deport all illegal aliens, defund sanctuary cities, ban Muslims from entering the United States, limit legal immigration, and triple the number of ICE agents. Trump’s hardline immigration stances won him favor with the conservative base, leading him to upset the 16 other major Republican candidates in the primary race such as Jeb Bush, who received over $100 million from donors but faced significant grassroots backlash for his perceived softer stance on illegal immigration. Trump went on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election while standing by his views on immigration.

After inauguration, President Trump made varying degrees of progress on his campaign trail immigration pledges. In 2017, he signed several executive orders. He signed a travel ban which restricted admission of the citizens of what was ultimately seven countries—Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela (Chad was included in the final executive order but removed from the list the following year), banning over 135 million potential immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors. Trump also rescinded the DAPA order in June. Lastly, in September, he announced plans to phase out DACA, making the potential recipients eligible for deportation.

In 2018, Congress attempted to pass several pieces of amnesty legislation which would have preserved DACA. A bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) which would have provided a path to citizenship for DACA recipients in exchange for a border wall and significant reductions to family-based chain migration failed in the House after garnering 193 votes, with 41 Republicans and all 190 Democrats in opposition. A week later, an even larger amnesty bill backed by Paul Ryan and the party leadership went down in flames, earning just 121 votes in the House. That bill would have provided amnesty to over two million illegal aliens while preserving the largest chain migration categories. The fate of DACA now remains uncertain. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that the program must resume processing new applicants, and a Supreme Court ruling is expected to come later this year to decide the program’s ultimate fate.