Immigration: A look back 1790-1885


immigrationWith finger waggling from the left, and now Republicans pushing against President Trump for his hardline stance on immigration and securing our borders, the debate of whether or not our President is a tyrant is hot and heavy. Aliens being detained, children being separated, and President Trump calling for his wall no matter what may not make him look like the most charitable President, but is what he is doing illegal? I decided to dig into immigration law history, and what I found might surprise you.

It’s not a new fight…

passportIn fact, from 1790 on, there have been at least 38 laws in regards to immigrants and illegal aliens. You read that right, 38.  Let’s take a trip back in history and see how immigration laws have changed.

1790- Naturalization Act

This laid out a baseline for becoming a United States citizen. It provided uniform guidelines for naturalization, which included residency requirements for applicants. They had to reside here for two years in the country and at least one year in one state before applying for citizenship. They also had to be upstanding citizens and not break any laws. This act almost took the power to establish immigration law out of the state legislatures.
Document from Library of Congress
The Law

1798- Alien and Sedition Acts

President John Adams, in order to appease the Federalist Party, gave the US Government power to deport or hold foreign-born people seen as “troublemakers”.  The problem with this law is that it really meant immigrants could be kicked out if they weren’t toting the Federalist Party line. The Democratic-Republican party railed against this Act, but nothing could be done until Jefferson was voted into the presidency and the law was repealed.
Source

There was also an act written to increase the residency requirement to 14 years, but it was repealed years later.

1819- The Steerage Act

The was the first immigration law that required passenger manifest and also how the immigrants were treated while on the ships bound to the United States. The passenger manifest also had to include the port of origin for each passenger. This was signed into law by President James Monroe. This act also started limited the number of people who come immigrate into the states.
Source

1864- Immigration Gets an Office

Bureau-of-immigrationThis law made it legal for the President to appoint a commissioner in charge of immigration. This commissioner would report to the Secretary of State. This law also made contract provisions where immigrants could settle the debt incurred to get here by working it off.
Source
Source 2

1868- The 14th Amendment is Ratified

It was in this year that is was made into law “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This essentially made all slaves United Citizens and therefore made it illegal to own a slave because you could not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

1870- Naturalization Act of 1870

This Act set up a system of controls in regards to the naturalization process. This also allowed non-whites to become naturalized citizens. However, other peoples considered “non-white” were not included and could not become citizens.
Included in the act were strict guidelines against forging citizenship papers.
Library of Congress
Source 2
Source 3

1875- The Page Act

This was commonly referred to as the “Asian Exclusion Act”. It made it illegal to import involuntary Chinese workers to the states and also women, if those women were prostitutes. This was the first law to exclude ethic groups/races, and women. This law also forbade the entry of anyone of Asian descent and Japanese.
Source 1
Source 2

NOTE: Where most would think this was a racist move from our government at the time, you have to remember this was the time when labor was being imported to build the railroads. The Asian peoples being brought in were subjected to being worked to death and in poor working conditions as a whole. Women were imported as prostitutes to entertain the rail workers.

1882- Chinese Exclusion Act

Chester A. Arthur put his presidential signature on this document, which may sound like it further served to discriminate against the Chinese people, but in fact, it prevented anyone from importing in Chinese labor for any reason. This included businesses trying to immigrate them here legally for work.
If the immigrants were immigrants not coming here to work on the railroad, they had to have certification from the Chinese government stating they could migrate to America. This Act excluded skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese who were hired to mine.
This, understandably, cut down on the number of Chinese people who migrated to the US. This act was on the books for ten years.
Source

1882- Immigration Act

This act gave power to the Treasury Department to enforce immigrant laws. This is the first in-depth immigration law on the books for the United States. It listed consequences for future immigration legislation and listed classes they deemed “undesirable”. Among the undesirables were convicts, lunatics, idiots, or any person unable to take care of themselves without needing government assistance. (I think they meant anyone mentally deficient, like medically retarded people and so forth, not anyone we would call an idiot, although Winking smile…)This was also where a “head tax” of $.50 for each immigrant arriving was implemented to fund administrative actions.
Source

1885- Alien Contract Labor Law

This was a blanket prohibition of the importation of immigrants for labor purposes. This made it illegal for an American to bring immigrants over with the promise of employment. Again, this was to help stem the tide of Chinese immigrants being exploited as this was at the height of the California gold rush, expansion of the railroad, and other growing industries.
Business owners at this time in history were more concerned with making a profit and doing that by paying their workers as little as possible and making them work long hours in harsh conditions.
Source

Part two will cover years 1891-1917. As you can see, immigration law was growing and changing, some for the worse and some for the better. There were some laws put into place to help prevent exploitation that would be seen today as racist and other buzzwords. I hope you enjoyed this look into immigration history and are thirsty for more.
Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below.

Until next time,
Anissa “Maddy” Mathias
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Categories: fact checking

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