Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-det-4a28681

Key Concepts

Nation of Immigrants

Before and since its founding, America has identified as a nation of immigrants and land of opportunity, a refuge from persecution, fear, poverty, and violence, and where one could succeed and thrive no matter their status or station at birth, in contrast to other nations and their rigid class systems that prevented such mobility. Some immigrants were pushed to immigrate to the United States to escape danger in their countries of origin, while others were pulled to immigrate for economic, education, or employment opportunities. Between 1880 and 1920, over 20 million immigrated to the United States, and currently over 45 million immigrants live in the United States. Yet, throughout its history, the United States has both feared and encouraged immigration, revealing an underlying tension within this nation of immigrants.    

Immigration Restriction

Immigration is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Article I, Sec. 9 discusses the tax and end of the migration and importation of slaves and Article I, Sec. 8 grants Congress the power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization” for newcomers to obtain U.S. citizenship. Therefore, regulation and restriction of immigrants was left to the states and not the federal government. Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing until the late 19th century, states restricted immigration as part of its “police powers” to protect and promote the health, safety, and welfare within their states. In the late 19th century, Congress passed federal laws restricting immigration, including barring convicts, paupers, those likely to become a public charge, those with loathsome and contagious diseases, contract laborers, and Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these federal restrictions on immigration under the federal power to regulate foreign commerce, foreign relations, and also Congress’s “plenary power” to exclude or deport as inherent in a nation’s sovereignty and right to self-preservation and security. Congress has used this power to regulate immigration and federal officials have enforced these laws, admitting, excluding, deporting, and detaining immigrants. The states have retained their police power to provide more or less protections or assistance for immigrant residents. Federal restrictions on immigration have changed over time, reflecting racial and religious prejudices and fears of immigrants undermining and subverting the nation through their actions and ideologies, as well as reflecting America’s identity as a nation of immigrants, built by contributions of newcomers seeking better opportunities and serving a safe asylum for refugees and beacon of freedom and tolerance

Relevant Cases or Laws

Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889) – Chinese Exclusion Case

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, amended in 1888, barring the entry and reentry of Chinese laborers to the United States. Congress holds the power to exclude foreign nationals from the United States as inherent in a nation’s sovereignty and right to self-preservation. Learn More

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923)

The Supreme Court rejected Thind’s argument that as a high-caste Hindu, “full Indian” Sikh from Punjab, classified as Caucasian, he should be considered “white” for the purposes of obtaining American citizenship under the Naturalization Act’s limitation of citizenship to “free white persons.” The Court held that as an Indian, Thind would not be “popularly understood” as Caucasian, and thus would be unable to qualify for naturalization. Learn More 

Johnson-Reed Act of 1924

Also referred to as the National Origins Quota Act, this Act limited immigration to the United States. It was influenced by the eugenics movement and white supremacy, reflecting a racist, discriminatory approach toward immigration. The act used a formula to restrict immigration to two percent of the total population from a particular nationality reflected in the national census of 1890. This formula was used for the purpose of excluding more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The act also barred immigrants from all Asian countries, building upon and expanding previous exclusions and restrictions. Learn More

Hart-Celler Act of 1965

Also referred to as the Immigration Act of 1965, this Act eliminated the discriminatory national origins quotas from the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the smaller quotas for Asian countries in place after the lifting of Asian exclusion. The Act replaced the national origins quotas with a new preference system based on family reunification and skills. Each country was capped at 20,000 visas, there was an annual cap of 170,000 visas for the Eastern Hemisphere, and a cap of 120,000 visas for the Western Hemisphere. Learn More

Teaching Tools, Lesson Plans, & Activities

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