The History of Immigration in America

Washington monument in Washington DC, United States of America, USA

Immigration is a major part of American history, as it has been throughout the centuries. From the first arrivals of European immigrants in the 1600s to more recent waves of refugees and asylum seekers, immigration has shaped the United States in countless ways. Immigration has always been a controversial subject in America. But understanding its history is essential for formulating cohesive immigration policies for today’s complex world. 

Overview of the Immigration History in America

The history of immigration in America dates back centuries to the earliest days of the nation’s founding. Immigrants have come to America for a variety of reasons, from political asylum seekers to economic opportunity seekers, which has shaped the culture and society we see today.

Immigration policies have changed over time to reflect the needs of the nation and respond to current events. From the Naturalization Act of 1790, which first defined eligibility for U.S. citizenship to more recent policies such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  Which provides temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for certain young immigrants — immigration policy in America has constantly evolved to adapt to the changing needs of our nation.

At several key moments throughout history, popular sentiment toward immigration has been divided. Moreover, it is ultimately through understanding our roots that we can build a more unified society today and move forward as a country that embraces its immigrant heritage.

Key US Immigration Moments: Ellis Island, Exclusion Acts, and More

Immigration has been an integral part of American history since its founding. Immigration and America’s policies towards immigrants have evolved, from the Puritans’ arrival in the 1600s to today.

  • The first major wave of immigration came in 1820 when nearly one million Irish immigrants left for the States due to famine in their homeland. Just 20 years later, 5.2 million German immigrants had come to America – by far the largest influx at that time.
  • In 1892, Ellis Island opened as an immigration station and welcomed millions of Europeans searching for a new life in America over its 60-year history. Congress passed two Exclusion Acts to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the US, with exceptions.
  • More recently, 1965 marked a new era for US immigration policy when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. The abolishment of earlier national-origin quotas and opening up access to many more potential immigrants from different parts of the world.

The act opened up opportunities for more diversity and legal pathways for those migrating to the United States.

Early Immigration Restrictions: Quotas and Beyond

The history of immigration in America is complicated, with various restrictions and policies coming in and out of existence since the 1600s. 

  • One of the earliest restrictions on immigration was through quotas, which were first enacted in 1921. The Immigration Act of 1921 established a quota system that limited the number of immigrants from each nationality allowed to enter the country. This act also established administrative laws for examining, issuing, suspending, and canceling visas.
  • In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Quota System which limited annual immigration from each nationality to two percent of foreign-born immigrants from that nation living in the United States in 1890. This act also eliminated immigration from much of Asia and Africa and barred those who were illiterate or deemed “undesirable aliens” from entering the country.
  • In 1965, Congress abolished the National Origins Quota System with the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. This new act replaced national origins quotas with a system of family reunification and skills-based immigration policies to attract foreign-born individuals with professional qualifications.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was a major overhaul of immigration policy. Immigrants had the first path to citizenship in 1924, providing amnesty to over three million undocumented immigrants who had been in the US since 1982. Employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants face penalties under the law.

At the same time, IRCA also sought to stem the current undocumented immigration into the US. It is by providing increased funding for border patrol, establishing employer sanctions, and creating legal pathways for temporary workers. The law established the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers and expanded the guest worker program to allow businesses to bring in foreign labor when domestic labor was scarce.

IRCA had its flaws, some have noted that its employer sanctions have resulted in discrimination against minority job seekers due to racial profiling. But, it ultimately provided a path towards citizenship for millions of non-citizens who had been living and working on American soil for years without documentation.

Impact of 9/11 on US Immigration Policies

The horrific disaster of September 11, 2001, had an immense impact on US immigration policies. After the attacks, the Bush Administration created sweeping new policies that tightened security at America’s borders. In addition, increased surveillance of immigrants already in the country. These measures included the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required certain foreign visitors to register with the government upon arrival. The Special Registration required those from 25 Muslim-majority nations to report regularly to federal authorities. Lastly, the “expedited removal” process gave Border Patrol officers extended authority to quickly deport undocumented immigrants without judicial review.


The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was also disbanded immediately following 9/11, leading to the creation of two separate agencies: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). USCIS focuses on legal immigration while ICE concentrates on border enforcement and enforcement internally within the U.S.

These changes had an immense impact on immigrant communities, who found themselves under increased scrutiny and surveillance. As well as feeling discriminated against due to their heritage or religion.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and Beyond

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart–Celler Act) is widely seen as a landmark moment in American history. The act abolished the national origins quota system and replaced it with a preference system that selected immigrants based on their skills and family connections.

  • The new regulations increased the number of immigrants allowed into the United States each year, drastically increasing immigration from Asia and Africa while decreasing levels from Europe. This period of reform ended America’s long history of discriminating against certain countries and ethnicities, paving the way for future generations to come to America regardless of their religious or political background.
  • Since then, changes have continued to be made to America’s immigration policy. Thus, including the Refugee Act of 1980 which extended asylum protections for refugees fleeing war or persecution. More recently, the DREAM Act (or Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), allowed undocumented immigrants who arrived in America as children to gain legal residency.

Through these policies, we can continue to build upon our nation’s rich heritage of immigration while upholding our commitment to equality and inclusion.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy that offers some degree of protection and relief to those individuals who were brought to the United States as undocumented immigrants as children. Established in 2012 by President Obama, DACA offered two-year deferred action from deportation, renewable indefinitely. It also provided individuals with a path toward legal status, allowing them to obtain work permits and Social Security numbers.

Since its inception in 2012, DACA has provided relief to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants that have been living in the United States since childhood. In 2017, President Trump announced plans to rescind the policy in 2020. However, Congress has opposed the plan, with more than 100 Dreamers staging a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office in protest.

Although much of the fate of DACA remains uncertain, it provides an excellent example of the resilience and determination of immigrants who are seeking a better life in America. Immigration in America is an important part of creating a better future for individuals and their families.

The Trump Administration’s Policies on Immigration

The Trump administration has implemented some of the harshest immigration policies in modern US history. The President has sought to limit both legal and illegal immigration to protect American workers.


Since 2017, the Trump administration has:

  1. Curtailed refugee admissions, reducing them by nearly 90% to just 15,000.
  2. Dismantled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – an Obama-era program that protected hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation.
  3. Threatened to withhold federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” and states
  4. Issued a travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries.
  5. Dramatically expanded expedited removal policies that allow authorities to quickly deport undocumented migrants without due process.
  6. Instituted a new “public charge” rule which would make accessing public benefits like education programs and housing discounts more difficult for immigrants.

These policies have sparked intense controversy, with many pointing out their detrimental impacts on American society and culture.

Safe and Secure Borders: Building a Wall

The idea of a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico has long been discussed, but it wasn’t until 2006 that action was finally taken. That year, President George W. Bush authorized the construction of a 700-mile steel fence along the US-Mexico border which was completed in 2008.

  • This barrier aimed to increase border security and help prevent illegal migration into the US. In addition to the fence, Bush increased funding for technology and personnel to protect the border, including drones and surveillance cameras.
  • President Donald Trump is attempting to secure further funding for a new wall which he claims will be more impenetrable than its predecessor. However, many argue that such measures are unnecessary due to already having secure borders enabled by existing laws and technology.

America’s immigration policies have changed significantly over time, and continue to do so today.

A Look at the Future of Immigration in America

As America continues to develop and evolve, so too will its policies on immigration. The U.S. currently has in place a range of temporary and permanent work visas, family-based immigration programs, and refugee programs. In recent years, it has proven difficult to make significant changes in the area of immigration due to the potential political risks involved.

With a new administration in office in 2021, many are expecting to see a shift in the current laws and policies enacted around immigration. Proposals include increasing the number of visas granted annually. Creating pathways for immigrants and refugees to gain citizenship or legal status. Investing more resources into border security, and reforming the legal framework for asylum seekers – all fraught with their own unique sets of challenges.

It remains to be seen how the U.S. will address these issues moving forward, but one thing is certain: Immigration is likely to remain a hot-button topic for years to come and will continue to shape our country’s history.