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Immigration and Migration in the U.S.: History & Background

An introduction to U.S. immigration policy and history. Includes local resources and "know your rights" guide.

History & Background

The United States has a long and complicated history of immigration, forced migration, territorial expansion, colonization, and deportation. But what does that mean for immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers living in America? Below are some key terms and dates to better understand this history.


All definitions from Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The African-American Migration Story

Immigration Policy in the U.S.

1790 | Naturalization Act

The Naturalization Act of 1790 created the process of citizenship by naturalization in the U.S. Only “free white persons” were eligible for naturalized citizenship.

1798 | Alien & Sedition Acts

These 4 laws (including the Naturalization Act of 1798) gave the president the authority to detain, imprison, or deport noncitizens, and increased the residency requirement for citizenship.

1875 | The Page Act

This was the first U.S. law to restrict immigration, and explicitly denied entry to Chinese women.

1882 | Chinese Exclusion Act

This law denied all Chinese people entry to the U.S. and intended to bar Chinese immigration for 10 years.

1882 | Immigration Act of 1882

The Immigration Act of 1882 created the category “liable to become a public charge,” which was used to deny citizenship on the expectation that the applicant would receive public benefits after becoming a citizen.

1907 | Expatriation Act

The Expatriation Act of 1907 stripped citizenship of Americans living abroad and of women who married noncitizens.

1917 | Asiatic Barred Zone Act

This law required a literacy test for immigrants seeking to enter the U.S., and denied entry to immigrants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

1924 | Johnson-Reed Act 

This law eliminated the statute of limitations on unlawful entries and instituted quotas for entry based on national origin.

1933 | Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is created.

1965 | Hart-Celler Immigration Act

The Hart-Celler Act abolished the national origins quota and created a preference system that prioritized family reunification, refugees, and those with desired skills

1996 | Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

AEDPA gave more discretion to INS officers to deny asylum, and expanded their ability to deport undocumented immigrants.

1996 | Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act

IIRIRA created the 287(g) program, which allows local and state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

2002 | Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is created.

2012 | Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

DACA provided temporary protection from deportation and work permits to those who arrived in the U.S. unlawfully before they were 16