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Timeline of Selected Federal Immigration Laws in the U.S., 1790-1986

This timeline traces federal immigration laws from the first Naturalization Act in 1790 through the 1986 law that addressed undocumented workers.

1790 Naturalization Act

* Passed by the first U.S. Congress

* Provided that any “free white person” residing in the U.S. for two years was eligible for citizenship

* Required that naturalized citizens “be of good character” and willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States

* Granted citizenship to children (under age 21) of naturalized citizens

1868 Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

* Passed during Reconstruction, it provides that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States”

1870 Naturalization Act

* Initially proposed to expand eligibility for naturalized citizenship to all “persons”

* Majority of Congressmen insist that it should exclude Asians, so the wording is changed to “white persons and persons of African descent”

* Overturned in an 1898 Supreme Court case, Wong Kim Ark v. United States. Wong, a Chinese American (born in San Francisco) was denied re-entry to the United States after an 1895 trip. He sued, claiming his right to citizenship under the 14th Amendment, and the U.S. government argued that U.S.-born Chinese were not citizens because their parents, as Chinese in the U.S., were not eligible to become naturalized citizens. The Supreme Court ruled that all persons born in the U.S. are citizens.

1875 Page Law

* Bars entry of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes, felons, and contract laborers (also known as “coolies”)

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

* Merchants, teachers, diplomats, students, and travelers are exempt from the law

* Laborers who were already in the U.S. were allowed to leave and re-enter, but they had to get a “Certificate of Registration” when they left so that they could get back in.

* In 1888, Congress revokes all “Certificates of Registration,” stranding any Chinese who left the U.S. intending to return

* Prevents Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens

1882 “Head Tax” Enacted for Arriving Immigrants

* Intended to finance enforcement of federal immigration laws

* Begins at fifty cents per person; rises to eight dollars per person by 1917

1891 Immigration Act of 1891

* Denies entry to immigrants judged to be mentally defective, mentally ill, poor or “likely to become a public charge,” sick with contagious diseases, criminals, and polygamists

* Establishes Bureau of Immigration under the Department of the Treasury to administer immigration laws

1892 Geary Act

* Renews 1882 Exclusion Act

* Requires that all Chinese in the U.S. register with the federal government

* In 1902, Congress makes 1882 Exclusion Act permanent

1917 Immigration Act of 1917

* Establishes a “barred zone,” denying entrance to immigrants from much of eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands

* Denies entry to all immigrants over the age of sixteen who are illiterate in their native languages

* Congress had previously (1895, 1897, 1913, 1915) passed laws requiring immigrants to be literate but three different presidents (Cleveland, Taft, and Wilson) had vetoed them; the 1917 version passed over Wilson’s veto.

1924 Johnson-Reed Act

* Imposes a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average

* Creates national quotas based on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census—a blatant effort to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe, which mostly occurred after that date

* Stipulates that aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship were not permitted to enter the United States, thus barring all Asians from entry to the U.S.

1943 Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act

* Congress repeals immigration laws excluding the Chinese, but extremely low quotas remain

* Grants Chinese the right to become citizens

1952 Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act)

* Ends total exclusion of racial and national groups from immigration and naturalization

* Preserves national origins quota system from 1924

1965 Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act)

* National origins quotas are replaced by hemispheric limits (170,000 visas per year from countries in the eastern hemisphere, 120,000 visas per year from countries in the western hemisphere)

* Unlimited number of visas granted to reunite families

1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (Simpson-Mazzoli Act)

* Grants amnesty to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided the U.S. continuously

* Makes it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit undocumented immigrants and requires employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Timeline
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Timeline of Selected Federal Immigration Laws in the U.S., 1790-1986,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 3, 2023,

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