Immigration Laws Passed in the U.S.: History and Timeline

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

A detailed look at immigration legislation from the Colonial Period to the present

by Beth Rowen
1790–1850 1851–1900 1901–1950 1951–1980 1981–present


The Naturalization Act of 1790, the country's first naturalization statute, says that unindentured white males must live in the U.S. for two years before becoming citizens.


The Naturalization Act of 1790 is amended and extends the residency requirement to five years.


With xenophobia on the rise, the residency requirement in the Naturalization Act of 1790 is lengthened again, to 14 years.


The residency requirement for citizenship is reduced to five years.


The Steerage Act requires that ship captains must submit manifests with information about immigrants onboard to the Collector of Customs, the secretary of state, and Congress.


The American Republican party is formed in New York (it later becomes known as the Native American party) by citizens opposed to the increased number of immigrants in the U.S. The nativists, or members of the Know-Nothing Movement, seek to permit only native-born Americans to run for office and try to raise the residency requirement to 25 years.


Congress passed the Expatriation Act of 1868 that said "the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people." The act was intended to protect the rights of naturalized immigrants whose native countries did not recognize expatriation claims..


The Naturalization Act of 1870 allows "aliens of African nativity" and "persons of African descent" to become U.S. citizens..


The Page Act becomes law. It's the country's first exclusionary act, banning criminals, prostitutes, and Chinese contract laborers from entering the country.


Congress passes the Immigration Act. The law imposes a $.50 tax on new arrivals and bans "convicts (except those convicted of political offenses), lunatics, idiots and persons likely to become public charges" from entering the U.S.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 bans "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining" from entering the country for ten years and denies Chinese immigrants the path to citizenship. Thousands of Chinese immigrants had worked on the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad, and these workers were left unemployed when the project was complete. The high rate of unemployment and anti-Chinese sentiment led to passage of the law.


Congress passes the Scott Act, which amends the Chinese Exclusion Act. It bans Chinese workers from re-entering the U.S. after they left.


Immigration Act of 1891 creates the Bureau of Immigration, which falls under the Treasury Department. The act also calls for the deportation of people who entered the country illegally and denies entry for polygamists, the mentally ill, and those with contagious diseases.


The Geary Act strengthens the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by requiring Chinese laborers to carry a resident permit at all times. Failure to do so could result in deportation or a sentence to hard labor. It also extends for another 10 years the ban on Chinese becoming citizens.

Ellis Island opens. It served as the primary immigration station of the U.S. between 1892 and 1954, processing some 12 million immigrants. By some estimates, 40% of all Americans have a relative who passed through Ellis Island.


Congress passes the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which denies anarchists, other political extremists, beggars, and epileptics entry into the U.S. It's the first time individuals are banned from the U.S. based on political beliefs.


The Naturalization Act of 1906 creates the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and places it under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department. The act also requires immigrants to learn English before they can become citizens.


The Immigration Act of 1907 broadens the categories of people banned from immigrating to the U.S. The list excludes “imbeciles,” “feeble-minded” people, those with physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from working, tuberculosis victims, children who enter the U.S. without parents, and those who committed crimes of “moral turpitude.”

The “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan ends the immigration of Japanese workers.

Congress passes the Expatriation Act of 1907 that says women must adopt the citizenship of their husbands. Therefore, women who marry foreigners lose their U.S. citizenship unless their husbands become citizens.


Immigration Act of 1917, also called Asiatic Barred Zone Act, further restricted immigration, particularly of people from a large swath of Asia and the Pacific Islands. The act also bars homosexuals, “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” "criminals," “insane persons,” alcoholics, and other categories. In addition, the act sets a literacy standard for immigrants age 16 and older. They must be able to read a 40-word selection in their native language.


The Emergency Quota Law of 1921 limits the number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year to 350,000 and implements a nationality quota. Immigration from any country is capped at 3% of the population of that nationality based on the 1910 census. The law reduces immigration from eastern and southern Europe while favoring immigrants from Northern Europe.


Congress passes the Married Women's Act of 1922, also known as the "Cable Act." It repeals the provision of the Expatriation Act of 1907 that revoked the citizenship of women who married foreigners.


The National Origins Act reduces the number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year to 165,000 and the nationality quota set forth in the Quota Law of 1921 is cut to 2% of the population of that nationality based on the 1890 census. The quota system did not apply to immigrants from the western hemisphere.

The U.S. Border Patrol is created.


The National Origins Act once again reduces the annaul cap on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the U.S., this time to 150,000. The 2% quota is linked to 1920 census data, thereby further limiting the number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.


The Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) requires that all immigrants age 14 and up register with the government and be fingerprinted. The act also bans individuals considered “subversives” from immigrating.


Because so many American men are fighting in World War II, the U.S. faced a shortage of farm workers and begins hiring Mexican workers in what was known as the bracero program. About 5 million Mexican workers participate in the program.


The Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act allows Chinese workers to immigrate to the U.S., but with an annual quota of 105.


The Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act is broadened to cover Filipinos and Indians, essentially repealing the Immigration Act of 1917.


The Displaced Persons Act allows up to 200,000 refugees displaced by World War II to enter the U.S.


Internal Security Act allows the deportation of any immigrants who were ever members of the Communist Party.


Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act) consolidates earlier immigration legislation into one law and eliminates race as a basis of exclusion. However, race continues to be a factor because the quota system remains in place, except for immigrants from the western hemisphere. Immigration from any country is capped at 1/6th of 1% of the population of that nationality based on the 1920 census.


The Immigration Act of 1965 gets rid of the nationality quotas, but limits annual immigration from the eastern hemisphere to 170,000, with a limit of 20,000 immigrants per country, and for the first time caps annual immigration from the western hemisphere at 120,000, without the country limit. In addition, a preference system is established for family members of U.S. citizens.


Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to apply for permanent resident status after residing in the U.S. for two years.


At the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. passes the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 that resettles about 200,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the U.S. and gives them a special parole status. The program was extended to Laotians in 1976.


The immigration caps outlined in the 1965 Immigration Act are replaced with an overall annual limit of 290,000.


The Refugee Act defines refugees as a person who flees his or her country “on account of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.” Refugees are considered a different category than immigrants. The president and Congress are granted the authority to establish an annual ceiling on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. The act also lowers the annual limit of immigrants to 270,000, from 290,000.


The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) allows immigrants who had entered the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1982, to apply for legal status but required them to pay fines, fees, and back taxes. It also gives the same rights to immigrants who worked in agricultural jobs for 90 days before May 1982. About 3 million immigrants gained legal status through the law. The act also requires employers to verify work status of all new hires and fine those who hire undocumented workers.


The Immigration Act of 1990 sets an annual ceiling of 700,000 immigrants for three years, and 675,000 thereafter.


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act broadens the definition of “aggravated felony” and increases the number of crimes classified as such so immigrants could be deported for a wider range of crimes. The law is applied retroactively. The act also increased the number of Border Patrol agents and established an “expedited removal” procedure to deport immigrants without a formal hearing.

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act sharply cuts legal permanent residents’ eligibility for many public-assistance benefits, including food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid.


The REAL ID Act of 2005 requires states to verify a person’s immigration status or citizenship before issuing licenses, expands restrictions on refugees requesting asylum, and limits the habeas corpus rights of immigrants.


The REAL ID Act of 2005 requires states to verify a person’s immigration status or citizenship before issuing licenses, expands restrictions on refugees requesting asylum, and limits the habeas corpus rights of immigrants.


On Nov. 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced he was taking executive action to delay the deportation of some 5 million illegal immigrants. Under the new policy people who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal residents will receive deportation deferrals and authorization to work legally if they have been in the U.S. for more than five years and pass background checks. Obama's action also amended the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows people under age 31 who were brought to the U.S. as children to apply for two-year deportation deferrals and work permits. Obama's policy change lifted the age ceiling and added a year to the deferral period. Twenty-six states challenged the executive order, and in February 2015 a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, temporarily blocking the provisions of the executive order while the states pursued a lawsuit to permanently shut down the program.

Related Links

Sources +