Are Mexicans the New Chinese?

Welcoming until we weren't: a brief history of U.S. immigration policy.

With the debate over immigration reform reaching a crescendo on Capitol Hill, it’s easy to imagine that the issue of who we let into the U.S., what they can do here and how long they can stay has been a primary focus of the federal government throughout our relatively brief tenure as a sovereign nation. But for well over a century after our forefathers threw off the yoke of English oppression, America maintained an open-door policy regarding foreign aliens. If you made the arduous journey here, who were we to say you couldn’t stick around?

Not surprisingly, immigration was not a topic that was high on the minds of the framers – who, it should be said, descended from people who simply showed up on America’s shores and claimed ownership. There is not a single reference to “immigration” in the Constitution; however, Article 1 Section 8 does give Congress the right to establish a “uniform Rule of Naturalization.” And for more than 100 years that was pretty much the extent of its efforts to legislate the treatment of foreigners.

The issue of immigration was left to the states – which maintained their own set of liberal policies, if any at all – or openly encouraged with federal statutes like the Homestead Act of 1862, offering free land in the West to any person, citizen or not, with the gumption to farm it for five years.

Prior to Reconstruction, Congress passed four separate laws governing the minting of U.S. citizens, starting with the Naturalization Act of 1790 – which opened the door to any free white person of “good moral character” who had lived in the U.S. for two years. Everyone else was shit out of luck as far as citizenship was concerned; but that didn’t mean you couldn’t live and work here as long as you wanted. Prior to the Steerage Act of 1819 the federal government didn’t even keep records on the numbers of aliens entering the country. And until 1906, it was not even necessary to speak English to become a U.S. citizen.

Under the Naturalization Act of 1870, aliens of African descent were granted the right to become citizens (the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to freed slaves had been ratified just two years earlier). However, people from Asia remained ineligible for citizenship, as did Native Americans – who would have to wait until 1924 to be formally recognized as legal citizens of the country we took from them.

As our population grew, the subject of immigration took on new significance. Given their Constitutional mandate over establishing the rules of citizenship, it was only natural that Congress would be given authority over immigration too. By the end of the 19th Century lawmakers were beginning to place restrictions on who could enter the U.S. Early laws surrounding immigration morphed and shifted often; but — unlike today’s focus on jobs and the economy — the primary impetus was always on excluding specific classes of citizens, based on either racial characteristics or some other measure of desirability (mental competence, criminal behavior and even political belief). Here’s how it all began:

The Page Act of 1875

In 1875, Congress passed the first federal restrictive immigration statute: the Page Law, which prohibited the importation of Asians for contract labor (“coolies”) and banned any subject of “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” from entering the country to engage in “lewd and immoral purposes.” The law also refused entry to any “obnoxious persons” who were serving sentences for crimes committed in their own countries. Ostensibly a law to fight human trafficking, immigration scholars say the Page Act was racially motivated and reflected Christian discomfort with the Chinese practices of polygamy and prostitution.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Less than a decade after the Page Act, America formalized its discrimination against the Chinese when President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in May of 1882. The law denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants and suspended their entry into the United States for a period of 10 years. It was renewed in 1892 and 1902 and not fully repealed until 1943. A separate statute from the same year added “lunatics” and people likely to become a “public charge” to the list of undesirable immigrants.

Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903

The first law to bar immigration status for political belief (or lack thereof, as the case may be) this 1903 law added anarchists – who had become persona non grata since one of them assassinated President William McKinley two years earlier – to the list of persons banned from entry to the U.S. Also included were epileptics, beggars and pimps. Four years later, in 1907, Congress broadened its list of inadmissible persons to include “idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons,” and people with Tuberculosis.

Immigration Act of 1917

This law further restricted immigration to the U.S. based on lifestyle characteristics by excluding homosexuals, alcoholics, polygamists and people over 16 who couldn’t read from legally entering the country. (It should be noted that the idea of a literacy test had been in contention since the 1890s, and took four votes in Congress to pass over the objection of President Woodrow Wilson). Also known as the “Barred Zones Act,” the law is perhaps best known for expanding the racist provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act to include most immigrants from Asia-Pacific.

Emergency Quota Law of 1921, National Origins Act of 1924, 1929

The foundation for the immigration system we have today was created by a series of laws and amendments passed in the 1920s. The Quota Law of 1921 was the first federal immigration statute to impose a numerical limit on immigration – which was set at 350,000 people a year – and it created strict thresholds based on nationality that favored people from northern and western Europe. The quota system was modified twice, each time making it more restrictive, and is blamed for keeping Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s from finding safe haven in the U.S. Notably, immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were not bound by these laws – which meant Canadians, Mexicans and Latin Americans still faced few restrictions on emigrating to the U.S.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Passed one year after the Civil Rights Act while lawmakers were emboldened by the notion of equality, this sweeping law replaced race-based admission criteria with one based on an immigrant’s skills, profession or relationship to family in the United States. The 1965 law — which remains largely intact — helped launch a new wave of immigration and is credited, for better or worse, with sparking “profound demographic changes in America.” Among other things, the law placed a premium on what immigrants would do once they got here, and for the first time placed numerical restrictions on Mexican immigration.