Sometimes regarded as a nation of immigrants, the role of immigration in the growth and diversification of the United States population is well established.  While U.S. immigration policy has undergone several major overhauls throughout history, these changes have often not only served to indicate which nationalities would be welcomed, but also to designate which countries’ populations were not desired.  Consider these examples:


The Chinese Exclusion Act – Signed into law in 1882, this act was written to ban Chinese immigration for ten years, though this act was not repealed until 1943.

Immigration Act of 1924 – This act limited the number of immigrants who could enter the U.S. from any country annually to 2% of the number of people already in the U.S. as of the 1890 census.  It also limed the entry of people from southern and eastern Europe, and prohibited the migration of people from the Middle East, East Asian, and India.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 – While upholding the national origins quota system, this act ended Asian exclusion.  It also introduced an immigration preference system that was based on skill sets and family reunification.

Immigration Act of 1965 – This act opened up previously-closed immigration doors to more people from Africa and Asia.  It also established a separate quota for refugees.

Thus, despite the ‘nation of immigrants’ title, in many cases, exclusion has been a key aspect of U.S. immigration policy.

Moreover, regardless of the immigration wave, throughout history newcomers to the United States have often been branded as threats to the status quo and have served as scapegoats for societal ills.  Recent examples include: national discourse that suggests that foreigners come to the U.S. to take unfair advantage of social programs and cost society more than they contribute; concerns that the country is losing its identity as a white, English-speaking, protestant country, as evidenced by the English-only movement, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the national rise of anti-immigrant vigilante groups such as the Minutemen; claims that immigrants are “taking our jobs;” and the post-9/11 vitriol against Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East.

Primers and additional resources

Immigration Options for Undocumented Youth: “DREAMers” – a history of the the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and a summary of options for undocumented youth created by Immigration Direct.

Why Are So Many People Coming to the United States from Mexico? (.pdf) – a short summary by Jason Wallach of Mexico Solidarity Network, and Susan Williams of the Highlander  Center

Immigration Policy in the United States (.pdf) – a 2006 report that covers  the evolution of U.S. immigration policy, categories of lawful admission, and the enforcement of immigration laws

Energy of a Nation: Immigration Resources from The Advocates for Human Rights:

New Americans – a newsletter series from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) that covers a range of immigration-related topics

Top Ten Resources on the Economic Impact of Immigration(.pdf) – a 2010 document from Immigration Policy  Center that discusses ten reports that make an economic case for comprehensive immigration reform

Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas – a brief timeline of U.S. policy on immigration and naturalization

How the United States Immigration System Works: A Fact Sheet – this webpage broadly covers how immigration policy is structured

“Why don’t they just play by the rules?”: Myths and Facts about U.S. Immigration Policy  (.pdf) – a short article that overviews the different avenues for obtaining legal immigration status

 Image: Angela Stuesse