Nov 7, 2019 in Research

The U.S. Immigration Policy in the Turn of 20th Century

Immigration policy is a set of measures implemented by public authorities of the United States, aimed at creating a flow of immigration as well as regulating the entry into and stay in the country of foreign citizens and stateless persons. From its very beginning, the U.S. immigration policy has been influenced by a number of factors that hinder the development of effective policy decisions in this area. In particular, these factors include the impact of changeable public mood, lack of understanding of the social and economic nature of immigration, the current practice of favoring to the indigenous population of the country to the detriment of visiting foreigners (nativism), as well as a variety of narrow political considerations. Such aspects of immigration policy were determined in the 19th century. Thus, this essay will discuss the U.S. immigration policy and related aspects in the 19th and beginning of 20th century.

Immigration during the Colonial Period

Immigration processes in the United States took place in the framework of interaction between the two trends: restrictionism and anti-restrictionism (state regulation or lack of it thereof). It is considered that initial starting point of immigration dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. Before the War of Independence, the immigration was controlled by such authorities as the British Crown, Parliament, the Ministry of Commerce and the authorities of the colonies (the legislature, the owners of colonies and local officials).

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Local authorities passed and enacted laws within the legislation of the United Kingdom. However, the goal of immigration policy was to recruit a new workforce. All colonies used a combination of advertisements (promising land and work, pay of relocation and guarantee of the rights and freedoms) and the activities of individual companies or recruit agents in European countries aimed at increasing the flow of immigrants.

The only limitation of migration in that period was the adoption of laws by the majority of colonies forbidding the entry of immigrants who did not belong to the religious community dominant in a particular colony. Laws against tolerance to paupers and criminals (adopted in a number of colonies) were usually not recognized by Britain.

The composition of the immigration of the colonial period was very heterogeneous. The colonies of America have become home to the people of Europe and Asia, escaping from political and religious persecution; landless peasants; ruined artisans; impoverished nobles and representatives of aristocratic families, who got large land holdings in America bestowed from the royal authority. A special category was contracted workers, who can be divided into two groups. The first group included workers who voluntarily signed a contract with emigration agent or ship owner (verbal promise was enough for the latter) under which they were obliged to work off their moving to America for a few years. Forcibly contracted criminals, vagabonds, paupers and irredeemable debtors belonged to the second group.

The main sources of emigration to North America from the 17th century until the end of the 19th century was England, where the “fencing” led to the landlessness of hundreds of thousands of peasants, and development of manufactory production generated unemployment among artisans; Ireland and Scotland, where the British government carried out mass confiscation of land and discriminatory policies against indigenous populations; Scandinavian countries and Germany.  

It should be noted that an important factor in the formation of the population of the colonies was a slave trade. Most American researchers ignore this fact, because they do not consider slave trade to be immigration. Others, such as Maldwyn Jones, noted that the slave trade was one of the most important ways to replenish the population of the colonies. Analyzing the process of folding the American nation, Edward Hutchinson considers African slaves to be immigrants despite the fact that they were brought to the colony (and later to the United States) by force. This point of view seems convincing, considering that Africans accounted for 10% of the total population in the British colonies in the end of the colonial period.

In general, the colonial period can be called a time of maximum encouragement of immigration. Also, this period is characterized by several features: the central government transferred authority for recruiting immigrants to the local authorities and entrepreneurs; namely, local governments exercised jurisdiction over immigration and settlement of immigrants; the increasing demands of economic development led to the search for new sources of labor.

Immigration after the Independence War

The next period of immigration took place after the war for the independence of the North American colonies and the formation of the United States of America, when the issues of immigration and legal status of immigrants have become a subject of a lively debate throughout the society. The criterion for such periodization is the first law on citizenship in 1790, according to which any free white person who had lived for two years in the US had a right to receive U.S. citizenship. However, the new law passed in 1795 extended the minimum period of stay up to 5 years, and Naturalization Act in 1798 extended it up to 14 years. Such a policy in respect to new arrivals can be explained by the predominance of the Federalists in Congress and the presidential administration, which felt the need to eliminate or at least reduce the impact of immigrants on the political life of the new state. Proceeding from the same views, there was adopted the Alien Act in 1798, according to which the President was empowered to deport any foreigner who represented a threat to the United States. Thomas Jefferson administration, which replaced the Federalists, contributed to the abolition of the Alien Act in 1800, and the new law on naturalization came into force in 1802 and restored the five-year period of residence in the United States as a condition for obtaining citizenship.

The first step in the establishment of state control over immigration can be considered the law of 1819, according to which the captains of vessels arriving in the United States were obliged to provide the authorities with passenger lists in order to take account of new arrivals. Thus, these ships were the first formal lists of immigration records. The same law stipulated that no more than two passengers could account for every five tons of displacement, due to the high mortality of ship passengers when traveling across the ocean because of the lack of basic living conditions. However, due to the lack of a proper monitoring mechanism, this provision was opposed by transporters. In 1847, there was passed a law that prohibited transshipment of vessels delivering immigrants in the U.S., and the law of 1855 that established a minimum of space on the ship for each passenger and contained requirements regarding the need to comply with certain living conditions.

Period of federal regulation of immigration was associated with the steady increase in the influx of immigrants. About 5.1 million people arrived in the U.S. seaports from 1820 to 1860; it was decided to establish a special body for immigration. Law on the Promotion of Immigration in 1864 provided the establishment of the Bureau of Immigration, which started to keep records on immigration. However, the law was repealed in 1868, and the year before, in 1867, the obligation to keep records on immigration was transferred to the Bureau of Statistics of the Ministry of Finance.

The Phase of Nativism

In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that marked the beginning of fundamental revision of immigration policy: all existing state laws regulating immigration were declared unconstitutional because immigration issues referred to the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. Awareness of the need for federal regulation of immigration and, as a consequence, the adoption of the above decision by the Supreme Court was explained by several factors. Since that time, a new stage of immigration policy begins. It is known as Immigration Restriction. In 1830s, massive anti-immigration sentiments arose in the large coastal cities in the United States. These sentiments received the term of “nativism” in the American historiography.

The emergence of nativism was primarily due to the overpopulation of coastal cities which could not accommodate all people coming from Europe, most of whom were poor. Abundance of cheap labor in the cities naturally caused the unacceptable labor market conditions for indigenous people in the country. Authorities in a number of states were forced to make a restriction of immigration, which was basically economic in nature: there were introduced various fees and charges in regard to the arrival of foreigners, and denial of entrance to paupers.

At the end of the 1830s, there was anti-catholic nativism phase, which spread almost everywhere and lasted until the end of the 1850s. Reasons for rejection of Catholics were first of all connected with the predominance of Protestants among the state’s population, and secondly, with a wide-scale immigration of Catholics from Ireland and Germany. About 1043 thousand of the Irish and 595 thousand of Germans entered the United States from 1820 to 1850, representing approximately 67% of the total number of immigrants during this period. Some states have passed discriminatory laws against Catholics. These laws have oppressed their rights in employment and land acquisition.

Phase of anti-Chinese nativism began at the beginning of the 1850s. The state of California was its epicenter. China’s defeat in the Opium War, the Taiping rebellion failure, natural disasters and famine, and subsequently “Gold Rush” led to the massive immigration of the Chinese to the United States and California above all. In 1852, California governor Bigler recommended the adoption of restriction legislation for Chinese workers in his message to the state legislature. The following year, the legislature passed a law on tax revenues from foreign miners, which in practice was applied only to the Chinese. In the future, a law was passed limiting Chinese rights on land acquisition.

Thus, the public mood created the need to take measures to protect the U.S. labor market and the economic interests of Americans from the influx of immigrants, but these problems could not be successfully solved at the level of state governments. As a result, the immigration issue came under the jurisdiction of the federal authorities of the United States.

Immigration Restrictions and Overall Anti-Chinese Sentiment

On March 3, 1875 there was passed a law according to which a country may not allow criminals and prostitutes to enter it, but this law did not contain clear criteria that ought to guide the conduct of the inspection for the selection of undesirable persons. The laws of 1882 and 1891 expanded the list of reasons to prevent the entry of immigrants into the country: the criminals and prostitutes have been added to the mentally ill; persons suffering from contagious diseases; polygamists; persons who, according to the immigration authorities, were not able to feed themselves and could become a burden to the American society.

Immigration Act 1882 established the collection of 50 cents of every immigrant; duty of charge which was given to customs officials. The collected funds were transferred to the Ministry of Finance, which catered for the social security of immigrants. Restriction of immigration was also a matter of immigrant’s nationality. The criterion for this phase of immigration policy was the increase in anti-Chinese sentiment in California, resulting in the fact that a special commission was sent to study the issue in 1876. In February 1877, the commission presented a report on the Chinese community, the basic ideas of which were as follows: the Chinese do not have a desire and opportunity for their development; they have “hideous and obscene habits”; they are morally lower than any European nation; they are cruel towards the elderly and the sick; finally, “the Chinese will never be able to assimilate to white.”

Naturally, both real living conditions of immigrants of Chinese origin, and the pressure exerted on them by public opinion and the authorities of California motivated these conclusions. As a result, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, on the basis of the findings of the commission and under the influence of the position of the authorities and the population of the state of California, as well as the American society in general, and for reasons of economic nature as well. 

According to this law, Chinese workers were banned from entering the U.S. for 10 years; Chinese that illegally enter the United States are subject to deportation by the court; Chinese who lived in the United States and left the country before November 17, 1880 with the customs certificate of the United States, were allowed to return to the country. In 1902, the law was extended for another ten years, and eventually became “perpetual” in 1904. Special “Chinese inspectors”, who were involved in the selection of people of Chinese descent, were appointed for the implementation of this law. Laws of 1885 and 1887 prohibited the importation of foreign workers under contract to perform any work. Exceptions were made only to qualified professionals in the industries of the U.S. economy, which has not been sufficiently developed at the time of the adoption of laws and could not develop without the assistance of foreign experts. According to the law in 1888, any foreigner who has entered the United States based on the employment contract could be expelled for one year from the date of entry.

Adoption of the new immigration law made it necessary to create a special federal agency whose main task would be a control over immigration. In 1891, the immigration department headed by the superintendent was established as the Ministry of Finance, and was reorganized in 1895 into the Bureau of Immigration administered by the Commissioner General. In 1890s, the ideological and political movement of restrictions was registered, and its supporters insisted on the need to restrict immigration. At the same time there was registered the anti-restrictionist movement, whose members were in favor of freedom of immigration as a necessary condition for further successful development of the American economy. 

New Restriction and Regulations at the beginning of 20th Century

There is a clear tendency in the analysis of the evolution of U.S. immigration laws that gives an indication of the gradual predominance of restrictionist views, which was reflected in the introduction of new restrictions regarding immigrants. Immigration Act 1903 expanded the list of persons banned from entering the United States with epileptics, mentally deficient people and anarchists or persons, “who believe that the U.S. government or any other government can be overthrown by force.” The law contained a prohibition to encourage immigration through print and word of mouth advertising, announcements and invitations of companies, such as transport companies and their agents. According to this law, the Bureau of Immigration was renamed into the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and transferred to the Ministry of Trade and Labor, because most of immigration laws were designed to protect American workers. 

Another Immigration Act was accepted in 1907, and supplemented the provisions of the previous one. The fee for each newly arrived foreigner was again increased; this time to four dollars. Persons with physical or mental defects were banned from entering the United States. People that entered the United States healthy, but then due to injury or illness lost the opportunity to support themselves, could be expelled from the United States for three years after the entry. In accordance with the law, immigration officials were granted full authority to address the various issues at a border crossing, including the reaffirmation of the right of foreigner to enter the U.S. or prohibit such entry. The law gave the U.S. President a right to refuse permission of entering the country for certain groups of foreigners in case their arrival worsens the situation in the labor market for U.S. workers. In order to regulate the placement of immigrants and distribution of labor, Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization created a department of information, which established new work places and appointed unemployed to these places of work. The task of The Immigration Act of 1907 was defined as follows: “To promote favorable distribution of foreigners who arrived in the United States between different states and territories in need of immigration”.

Regulation of Japanese Immigration

At the beginning of the 20th century, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt raised a question about the necessity of legal settlement of Japanese immigration to the United States. Japanese immigration officially started in 1868 and peaked in the beginning of 20th century. Like the Chinese immigrants, immigrants of Japanese descent settled in the states on the Pacific coast of the U.S., which caused a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment, the center of which was California again. This has resulted in the conclusion of “gentlemen’s agreement” between the United States and Japan 25 October 1907. In the same year, the United States signed an agreement with Mexico, in which it had to close the border with the United States for the passage of the Japanese. If at the end of the 19th century, the main countries of emigration were Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, in the beginning of 20th century most immigrants arrived from Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia. From 1901 to 1910, 8795 thousand people came to the United States.


Summarizing the development of immigration policies the United States at the turn of 20th century, it can be concluded that this period formed not only ideological and political restrictionist movement in immigration policy, but also the basis for the adoption of restrictionist legislation. The legislation was limited not only by the general number of immigrants, but also imposed restrictions based on the nationality of immigrants.


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