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How immigration in the US has changed over the centuries

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Jul. 6, 2018 at 2:19 p.m.

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Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban against certain countries, and reports of immigrant families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border have also been in the news lately.

Much has been brought up about those topics over the past few years, and even decades, but immigration — legal or illegal — isn’t a new political topic by any means. Immigration has been a subject constantly brought up in American history, often with scars.

Immigration laws have changed throughout the course of U.S. history, but immigration discussion has largely remained the same. There are always people for and against the specific groups at the center of discussion during that period of time, and many of the arguments carry similar themes throughout time.

"What we're seeing today in 2018 is not necessarily different really in many ways from other immigration battles that have occurred in U.S. history," said Danielle Olden, assistant professor of history at the University of Utah. "Immigration was an issue at the beginning of the republic and really before it existed."

Here's how immigration laws and rhetoric in the U.S. (circa past the U.S. Consitution) has changed over the centuries.

It all starts with the Naturalization Act of 1790. The law was enacted as the country's first real immigration law two years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and one year before the Bill of Rights was passed.

The law allowed any “Alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.”

The number of years was extended to five years in 1795, and later, extended to 14 years in 1798 before it was repealed in 1802 back to five years.

The Naturalization Act provided much of the grounds for immigration over the following years but had some revisions along the way. For example, in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended, the law expanded from just allowing a "free, white person" to also include "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."

However, this naturalization law also set up a convoluted period in American history. Those whose cultures fit within the majority's social norms typically shaped immigration, said Caren Frost, director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration at the University of Utah.

“There’s sort of been an expectation that people who came to the United States would — I guess for lack of a better word — be asked to assimilate into the dominant culture,” Frost said. "There's always been sort of an underlined tone of, 'we don't want certain groups to come into the United States.'"

As one example, while there weren’t laws against Irish immigration, Irish immigrants were often discouraged from moving to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Many began fleeing to the U.S. and elsewhere after the Great Famine began in 1845, and public opinion of the Irish was low in the U.S. and other countries.

Thomas Nast, the famous political cartoonist, frequently depicted Irish immigrants as gorillas, and they were often believed to be criminals and disease-ridden, according to Others, headed by a group known as the Know-Nothing Party, centered their opposition on stopping Roman Catholics (which often included Irish citizens) from entering the country, as noted by Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Then there were economic barriers. In the 1840s, Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the northeast “posed a threat” to the economy and politics of those already in the country, according to the Britannica article.

An anti-Catholic cartoon in 1855 depicting the pope with sword entering the U.S. (Photo: Library of Congress)

About the same time in the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants started arriving in the Pacific West. And not long after, similar sentiments were brought up about the Chinese.

A 2018 American Experience documentary by PBS highlighted the troubling decades leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — a law that banned all Chinese immigration for 10 years amid concerns that Chinese workers were taking jobs away from U.S. citizens because they were willing to work for cheaper wages. The law was ultimately extended through 1943 when it was repealed.

Olden explains this similar rhetoric also extended to the fear of anarchy from Italians at the turn of the 20th century, which prompted the Anarchist Exclusion Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1903.

An 1860-era political cartoon from a cartoonist in San Francisco about Irish and Chinese laborers swallowing up the U.S. At this time in American history both Irish and Chinese workers were primarily laying track for growing railroads. (Photo: Library of Congress)

"A lot of the rhetoric has remained the same. Certain people are desirables and other people are undesirables," she said. "There's always been a battle of who we want and who we don't want to be here."

Here are some of the other notable laws and changes to immigration behavior.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1906 created the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.
  • The Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, in which U.S. and Japanese officials informally agreed that Americans wouldn't ban Japanese people from the U.S. but the Japanese government wouldn't allow workers to migrate to the U.S. The agreement also ended segregation between Japanese and white students in San Francisco schools, according to
  • The Immigration Act of 1917 created a literacy test for any immigrant over the age of 16 (with some exceptions). It also banned all immigration from Asian countries.
  • The Emergency Quota Act in 1921 started an immigration quota system for the first time.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 established an immigration quota based on the total number of people of each nationality in the U.S. during the 1890 national census. It allowed more immigrants from the countries most represented in the U.S. in 1890 and fewer from lesser-represented countries. Asian countries were still prohibited from immigrating. Immigration was also capped at 150,000 per year.

Immigration officials examining Japanese passengers aboard the ship Shimyo Maru, at Angel Island 1931. Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted Japanese immigration to the U.S. (Photo: Everett Historical Photos, Shutterstock)

Immigration really changed again after WWII. The United Nations held a convention on refugees in 1951, designating that countries must recognize a person's right to seek asylum from persecution, conflict or war in another country.

The Cuban Adjustment Refugee Act in 1966 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson helped assist refugees fleeing from Cuba. President Gerald Ford signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which allowed 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to enter the country with a legal status.

The Refugee Assistance Act of 1980 signed by President Jimmy Carter expanded the yearly refugee cap in the U.S. from 17,400 to 50,000.

However, that's obviously different from immigration. Refugees seek asylum for various reasons, while Frost explained immigrants "are people who are making a decision to come to the U.S. specifically because they see that there's more educational opportunity, there's more economic opportunity."

Most of the discussion now centers around borders — who is coming in legally and who isn't, and how that impacts national security, crime, jobs and resources.

Needless to say, the history of immigration in the U.S. is a reminder that who comes into America changes over the course of time, but some aspects of the immigration discussion don't change at all.

Carter Williams

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