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Landmarks in U.S. Immigration Reform

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Bordering the Future

  • 1819. Congress enacts the first significant federal immigration laws, including registration requirements for new immigrants. Enforcement of federal immigration statutes is left up to individual states.

  • 1864. Immigration control is centralized under a commissioner reporting directly to the Secretary of State, but states and their immigration commissions, boards, and other offices retain authority over immigration.

  • 1882. Legislation barring Chinese immigrants and levying a head tax on each new arrival is passed.

  • 1891. A new law establishing "complete and definite Federal control over immigration" requires all states to transfer their enforcement and other immigration activities to a new Bureau of Immigration within the Treasury Department.

  • 1903. Immigration laws, consolidated under the Bureau of Immigration, are amended to exclude polygamists, political radicals, prostitutes, convicts, alcoholics, and "persons likely to become public charges."

  • 1924. The U.S. Border Patrol is created, the first legal restrictions are placed on casual migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, and a national-origin quota system is established.

  • 1933. Separate immigration and naturalization functions are consolidated in the Department of Labor, creating the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

  • 1940. In response to growing concerns about international tensions and war, the INS is transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice.

  • 1942. Officially called the Emergency Farm Labor Program, but better known as the bracero program, a new law provides U.S. corporate agricultural employers with legally contracted Mexican workers.

  • 1952. Multiple laws governing immigration and naturalization are brought under a comprehensive statute, limiting immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving Western Hemisphere totals unrestricted.

  • 1965. The Immigration and Nationality Act amends existing laws, for the first time establishing an official quota for legal immigration from Western Hemisphere nations and requiring the U.S. Labor Secretary to certify that prospective immigrants pose no threat to U.S. jobs.

  • 1976. Known unofficially as the Mexican Quota, an adjustment to the 1965 amendments limits the number of legal visas issued to Mexican immigrants each year to 20,000.

  • 1986. The Immigration Reform and Control Act grants amnesty to foreigners who can prove they have resided in the U.S. continuously since 1982 and establishes sanctions for employers of undocumented workers. It also gives legal status to certain agricultural workers.

  • 1990. Congress expands legal immigration quotas from 270,000 to 340,000 per year, and creates "independent" and "family preference" visas to handle the increased numbers of legal permanent residents resulting from the 1986 legalization provisions.

  • 1993-1994. The report of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and a variety of proposed bills raise the profile of the immigration debate, recommending reforms that include creating a national computer network to verify applicants' Social Security and INS status, eliminating appeals by criminally convicted aliens, boosting penalties for visa fraud, allowing interdiction at sea of migrant smugglers, and denying citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S.

  • 1996. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act provide for more border enforcement, a 14-mile triple fence south of San Diego, and increased penalties for smuggling undocumented workers into the U.S., as well as for using false documents to obtain jobs or public benefits.

  • 1997. Appointed by Congress and the President in 1990, the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform advisory group recommends abolishing the INS and parceling its duties to other federal agencies.