23 Defining Moments in Immigration Policy History

A super easy guide to more than 200 years of immigration policy.

ByABC News
November 26, 2012, 9:33 AM

Nov. 27, 2012— -- Ever wondered how we ended up with this cobbled-together immigration system?

Drawing on a mix of sources, including Guarding the Golden Door, here are the 23 defining moments in immigration policy history that helped create the system we know today:

1. Naturalization Act of 1790

- It restricted naturalization to "free white persons." Naturalization restrictions by race were not completely removed until 1952.

The "Am I Not a Man And a Brother" anti-slavery medallion produced by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. (Wikimedia)

2. Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)

- These were less immigration laws and more of a political weapon used by Federalists against Jeffersonians. The short-lived acts never actually resulted in any deportations, but did cause imprisonments and force some immigrants to flee the country.

An illustration of a fight on the floor of Congress between Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Lyon was a Democratic-Republican and Griswold a Federalist. (Library of Congress)

3. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)

- The treaty that gave the U.S. what would become states like Arizona, California and New Mexico also extended citizenship to Mexicans living in the newly annexed territory.

- Piles of stones were set up across the southern border to mark the division between the U.S. and Mexico.

Map of the states and territories of the United States as it was from 1834 to March 1836. (Golbez/Wikimedia Commons)

4. Rise of the Know Nothings (1850)

- The country's first politically impactful anti-immigration group fielded two presidential candidates, Daniel Webster (a famous statesman who died during his campaign) and Millard Fillmore (the former president). Both candidates lost in their presidential bids, but the Know Nothings controlled the Massachusetts legislature and won political seats across the country before a collapse in 1855.

An illustrated advertising label for soap manufactured in Boston, interesting for its imagery and allusion to the popular "Know Nothing" or nativist movement. (Library of Congress)

5. Adoption of 14th Amendment (1868)

- The amendment stated that anyone born in the U.S. would automatically become a U.S. citizen.

- The Naturalization Act of 1790 that limited naturalization to "free white persons" was extended to people of African descent in 1870, but not to Asians.

On April 22, 1865, Harper's Weekly featured a cartoon about black and white Civil War veterans. (HarpWeek)

6. Page Act (1875)

- This act prohibited immigrants considered undesirable from entering the U.S., but was effectively geared toward Chinese laborers and Chinese women who were deemed to be prostitutes.