Where did our current immigration laws come from?
In democratic countries such as the United States, immigration policies seek to implement national priorities regarding what kinds of persons may legally immigrate and eventually claim full rights as equal citizens. Achieving the unity and equality proclaimed in the motto, E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “Out of Many, One,” requires careful attention to immigration laws and how they have been framed and enforced. Values regarding who can become U.S. citizens and why have evolved over time, as reflected in our laws regarding citizenship and immigration. Because it can affect so many areas of national importance–who votes in U.S. elections, labor competition and access to workers, national security, international relations, economic development and competitiveness, and the character of U.S. society–immigration policy is subject to great conflict and negotiation. Once the federal government began systematically restricting immigration in 1882, it has also had to figure out legal and institutional strategies and practices for how to enact intended goals and enforce them effectively. The “Immigration History” website aims to promote understanding of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” by providing an overview of major laws and events, classroom-ready teaching modules on selected topics, and guidance to relevant readings and primary sources.
How have laws affected different types of people differently?
Although the Declaration of Independence asserted equality for all, from its founding the United States has limited citizenship, and later immigration, on the basis of race, gender, and class. Over time, these categories have become much more expansive in serving priorities such as family unity and economic competitiveness. In 1790, however, the earliest citizenship law reserved rights to citizenship by naturalization to “free white persons,” or white male property owners. During the 1880s, the earliest enforced immigration laws drew upon these values to bar legal entry to categories of persons considered unsuitable for citizenship, starting with Chinese as a race, the poor (LPC), and contract workers. Even as the U.S. government struggled over the appropriate targets for immigration restriction, it had to develop legal systems and bureaucratic institutions to carry out these goals.
Variations in the origins and size of immigration flows are shaped by U.S. immigration laws but also by conditions in the migrants’ homelands which lead them to search for better economic opportunities, social stability, safety, and to join family and friends. For these reasons, immigration influxes have shifted over time [graph of immigration 1821-2000] the balance of economic and political conditions in different regions have changed. Migrants from western and northern Europe predominated through the 1880s, followed by those from eastern and southern Europe through the 1950s, and then those from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean after the 1960s. The 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act legalized more diverse immigration by ending the earlier emphasis on race and national origins in favor of a preference system that prioritized skilled employment, family unification, and refugees. [Pathways to legal immigration since 1965] [Most common immigrant jobs by state, 2013] However, for the first time it also limited immigration from within the Americas which has generated severe enforcement problems chiefly affecting migrants from the United States’ closest neighbors. Over time, immigration policy has come to more closely reflect ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence even as continuing problems of unauthorized immigration keep up pressures for further reforms.
Scholarship and Curriculum
- Lead Scholar: Madeline Y. Hsu (UT-Austin)
- Curriculum designer: Esther J. Kim (UT-Austin)
- Additional contributors: Joanna Batt (UT-Austin), Katherine Carper (Boston College), Charles Fanning (U Maryland); Adam Goodman (UIC), Jennifer Graber (UT-Austin), Marilynn Johnson (Boston College), Rosina Lozano (Princeton University), Gráinne McEvoy (Notre Dame University), Sarah McNamara (TAMU), Lucy Salyer (University of New Hampshire), Neil Shanks (Baylor University), Alexandra Thrall (UT-Austin), Ruth Wasem (UT-Austin), K. Scott Wong (Williams College)
Web Development Team
- Lead Website Developer: Stacy Vlasits
- Design & Coding STA Supervisor: Suloni Robertson
- Student Technology Assistants: Rodrigo Villarreal (Website Development), Jaclyn Alford (User Interface and Design), Kathy Vong (User Interface and Design)