Immigration legislation over the past century has embodied the ever-evolving answers to these questions. Ebbs and flows in the volume and composition of immigration have not always been dictated by conscious policy decisions and legislation, but they certainly have been shaped by them. This section describes that evolution and also reviews recent legislation of special significance.
Until 1875, no direct federal legislation restricted admission of aliens into the country or the automatic qualification of immigrants and their children as citizens. States and the federal government did, however, impose some restrictions on immigration before 1875. In the colonial period, several colonies enacted laws to prohibit the entrance of criminals. After independence, many states restricted the entrance of paupers from outside the United States. And, before 1875, certain federal provisions affected immigration, such as laws to prohibit Chinese ''coolies" on American vessels. But even when there was little federal immigration legislation, immigration has been a subject of ongoing discussion throughout U.S. history. Changes in public policy have quickened in this century, which has witnessed periodic and significant revisions in federal immigration policy.
Table 2.1 provides a brief summary of major federal immigration legislation. The initial federal attempts at controlling immigration dealt not with overall numbers, but instead with the types of people who were admitted. The first restrictive immigration law, passed in 1875, prohibited persons who were destitute, engaged in immoral activities, or physically handicapped. Direct and blatant exclusion of people based on their race was a major focus of early immigration legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, was largely a response to racism and to anxiety about threats from cheap immigrant labor. Until 1860, virtually all immigrants to the United States were from Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. After 1860, growing numbers came from Scandinavia, China, and South America, drawn by the job opportunities in the expanding American West. In the 1860s, for instance, about one-third of the western miners were Chinese.4 As the numbers of immigrant laborers increased, so did opposition from native-born labor groups. This was the impetus behind the Chinese Exclusion Act. It limited the number of Chinese allowed to enter the United States; later amendments ultimately prohibited immigration of Chinese altogether.
The Immigration Act of 1891 broadened the role of the federal government in monitoring and regulating immigration. Creating the Office of Immigration, the precursor to today's Immigration and Naturalization Service, this act directed the superintendent of immigration to enforce immigration laws under the supervision of the secretary of the treasury.
Concern about Asian immigration, originally specific only to the Chinese,
as a discussion of recent naturalization trends. For a background on the evolution of the concept of citizenship, see Klusmeyer (1996).