The History of Racism in United States Immigration Law

Erick Widman

The history of racism in United States immigration law dates back to the country’s founding. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the U.S. Congress passed several laws aimed at restricting immigration by non-white people. The first of these was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited naturalization to “free white persons” of good character. This effectively excluded people of African and Asian descent from becoming U.S. citizens.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States for 10 years. The act was extended several times and was not repealed until 1943. During this time, Chinese immigrants were subjected to discriminatory and abusive treatment, including forced deportation and internment.

In the early 20th century, the United States implemented a series of laws that sought to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas that favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe while severely restricting immigration from other parts of the world, particularly Asia and Africa.

During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly relocated and interned approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens, in concentration camps. This was done under the pretext of national security, but the internment was widely criticized as a gross violation of civil rights.

In the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. government began to dismantle some of its more overtly racist immigration policies, but discrimination persisted in more subtle forms. For example, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origin quotas established in 1924, but it still favored immigrants with family ties to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, which tended to benefit white Europeans.

More recently, there has been controversy over immigration policies that target specific groups of people, such as Muslims and undocumented immigrants from Latin America. These policies have been widely criticized as discriminatory and counter to American values of freedom and inclusivity.

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