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A brief history of America changing its mind (again and again) on immigration

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Right now, somewhere around 11 million people are living "illegal" lives in the United States. That's close to one out of every 30 people in this country, going about their daily business under the threat of deportation. Many have lived in the United States for years, even decades. Many came to the United States at such a young age, they don't even remember life in another country. They may consider this country home, but the paperwork doesn't. The law doesn't. 

These parts you already know. 

But how did we get to this point? 

Tomorrow, we'll air our latest State of Opportunity documentary, Out From the Shadows, which follows the lives of undocumented families in Michigan. But we also spent time looking at the history of immigration law in the United States, to try to better understand how the laws have changed over time, and how so many people became excluded. 

And it's a fascinating history. 

For more than half the history of the United States, there was no limit on immigration. There was barely inspection. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. And when ships arrived in New York from Europe, first and second class passengers were waved right on through. Only third class even had to stop at Ellis Island.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Immigrants arriving in New York from Ellis Island in 1913

The southern border of the U.S. was little more than a line on a map. Most of the Western United States actually was Mexico until 1848. And even after that, there was no formal border enforcement.  

But, after World War I, everything changed

European immigration to the United States reached its peak during the war years, and after the war was over, U.S. leaders feared being overrun by refugees from Europe’s devastated cities.

Warren G. Harding as a Senator in 1920.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding argued against joining the League of Nations, and instead preached "America first."

"Call it selfishness of nationality if you will," the then-Senator Harding intoned. "I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion – to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first."

The next year, in 1921, Congress, for the first time put a limit on how many immigrants would be allowed into the United States. It set up a quota system for each foreign country.

In 1924, Congress created the Border Patrol.

And let’s be clear, the laws on immigration back then were explicitly racist. America’s first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, said right in the text that only free white people could apply for citizenship. That language didn’t disappear from federal immigration law until 1952.

There were also quotas on how many immigrants could enter from each foreign nation. Those quotas implicitly excluded certain racial and ethnic groups.

But throughout this time, Congress didn’t place any numerical limit on immigration from Latin America. There was already a long history of people coming across the southern border to work temporarily in the United States, then return home.

But that didn’t mean immigrants were exactly welcome.

During the Depression, many cities and states across America encouraged immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, to “repatriate.” It was deportation through coercion, sometimes violence. But it wasn’t official policy.  It’s estimated a million people returned to Mexico during that time. 

Many of them were U.S.citizens.

Detroit alone lost 90% of its Mexican-born residents

But attitudes in the U.S. about immigrants crossing the southern border would continue to change like the tides all through the 20th century.


After World War II broke out in the 1940s, the U.S. faced another labor shortage. And Roosevelt’s administration reached a deal with Mexico to send workers north to work again on U.S. farms, to ensure the food supply for a nation at war. It was called the Bracero Program.

But even while the U.S. encouraged workers to come from Mexico, there would be times when the U.S. government would turn against immigrants.

In 1954, the federal government initiated a deportation program and named it with a word that today is a racial slur. It was called, officially, Operation Wetback.

The next big tide change in U.S. immigration policy came in 1965.


President Johnson stood at Liberty Island, in front of the Statue of Liberty to sign the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This new law did away with the quota system, so that immigrants could be admitted from any nation. But, they would now be admitted based on family connections already in the United States, or based on their skills.

"The days of unlimited immigration are past," Johnson declared. "But those that do come will come because of what they are and not because of the land from which they sprung."

A wave of new immigrants arrived after the signing of this bill. And while the law did not restrict how many people could come from each nation, it said that no nation could account for more than 7% of all immigrants granted green cards in a given year.

This created a backlog of applications from certain countries: China, the Philippines and Mexico.

But because businesses kept hiring workers, because the United States couldn’t actually check every mile of its border, every seat on every airplane or bus, millions of people still came to the U.S. to work without getting official approval.

The number of people who came illegally kept adding up. 

Then, in 1986, President Reagan signed yet another law meant to reform immigration in the U.S.

Credit Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library
Ronald Reagan signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provided amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants.

"Our objective," Reagan said, "is only to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly and secure system of immigration into this country, and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people."

As he signed this law, President Reagan created a new federal policy toward illegal immigration. The policy of amnesty. Nearly 3 million immigrants came forward to sign up. The law forgave them, and allowed them a way to become citizens here.

The law also called for more enforcement and sanctions against businesses that gave jobs to undocumented immigrants. And it called for more enforcement at the border. Those two parts of the law faded over time. So more immigrants came, papers or not.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would triple over the next 20 years.

The Pew Research Center estimates the number peaked in the mid-2000s, then went down. Now, the number of undocumented immigrants has been relatively stable for the past several years, hovering at right around 11 million people. 

Pew also reports a large majority of Americans believe those immigrants should be able to stay in the U.S. legally. But so far, Congress hasn't provided a way for that to happen. 

In 2012, President Obama announced a change in how his administration would handle undocumented immigrants. The new policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA, gives protection to some immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Those who signed up and passed a background check could get a work permit, and a promise that they wouldn't be deported – for a few years at least. At last count, more than 700,000 people have signed up. 

In 2014, Obama announced he would expand the program, and create a new program to cover parents whose children are U.S. citizens. 

The Obama administration estimated nearly 5 million people would be eligible to apply for the deportation deferrals. 

But, after a tie vote in the Supreme Court earlier this year, the program remains frozen. 

So America's immigration law remains stuck. And 11 million people remain stuck with it. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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