The Racial Origins of Immigration Policy in the United States

Race and immigration have gone hand in hand since the beginning of the United States of America. Assimilation and the perceived ability of people from different races to achieve it were at the core of most of the immigration laws from the 1870s to the 1960s.

The first formal immigration law, enacted in 1791, limited naturalization to “free white persons.” After the Civil War, Congress added an exception in 1870 for persons of African descent, but defeated a push by U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner to strike all references to race from requisites for citizenship.

Under those first laws, millions of immigrants, nearly all from European countries, gained U.S. citizenship. Many more had entered the country since the early 1800s, when the nation had no immigration limits, and being a legal immigrant was mostly a matter of surviving the transatlantic crossing and proving that one was able to work and not gravely ill.

Hostility against Chinese immigrants after they had served the purpose of building the railroads fueled one of the most restrictive immigration policies in U.S. history.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur became the first significant law that curtailed immigration of a racial or ethnic group into the United States. It originated in anti-Chinese sentiments, mostly in California, where the Chinese were 25 percent of the labor force at the time. The law was not repealed until 1943.

The government’s official position was that the Chinese were unable to assimilate. In 1889, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field’s majority opinion in a case challenging Chinese exclusion said that if “the government of the United States, through its legislative department, considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous . . . its determination is conclusive upon the judiciary.”

By Pilar Marrero for KCET
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