The United States has long been considered a nation of immigrants, but attitudes toward new immigrants by those who came before have vacillated over the years between welcoming and exclusionary. Thousands of years before Europeans began crossing the vast Atlantic by ship and settling en masse, the first immigrants arrived in North America from Asia. They were Native American ancestors who crossed a narrow spit of land connecting Asia to North America at least 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.
By the early 1600s, communities of European immigrants dotted the Eastern seaboard, including the Spanish in Florida, the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York, and the Swedes in Delaware. Some, including the Pilgrims and Puritans, came for religious freedom. Many sought greater economic opportunities. Still others, including hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans, arrived in America against their will.
Below are the events that have shaped the turbulent history of immigration in the United States since its birth.
White People of 'Good Character' Granted Citizenship
January 1776: Thomas Paine publishes a pamphlet, “Common Sense,” that argues for American independence. Most colonists consider themselves Britons, but Paine makes the case for a new American. “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” he writes.
March 1790: Congress passes the first law about who should be granted U.S. citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allows any free white person of “good character,” who has been living in the United States for two years or longer, to apply for citizenship. Without citizenship, nonwhite residents are denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to vote, own property, or testify in court.
August 1790: The first U.S. census takes place. The English are the largest ethnic group among the 3.9 million people counted, though nearly one in five Americans are of African heritage.
Irish Immigrant Wave
1815: Peace is re-established between the United States and Britain after the War of 1812. Immigration from Western Europe turns from a trickle into a gush, which causes a shift in the demographics of the United States. This first major wave of immigration lasts until the Civil War.
Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish—many of them Catholic—account for an estimated one-third of all immigrants to the United States. Some 5 million German immigrants also come to the United States, many of them making their way to the Midwest to buy farms or settle in cities including Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
1819: Many of newcomers arrive sick or dying from their long journey across the Atlantic in cramped conditions. The immigrants overwhelm major port cities, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. In response, the United States passes the Steerage Act of 1819 requiring better conditions on ships arriving to the country. The Act also calls for ship captains to submit demographic information on passengers, creating the first federal records on the ethnic composition of immigrants to the United States.
1849: America’s first anti-immigrant political party, the Know-Nothing Party forms, as a backlash to the increasing number of German and Irish immigrants settling in the United States.
1875: Following the Civil War, some states passed their own immigration laws. In 1875 the Supreme Court declares that it’s the responsibility of the federal government to make and enforce immigration laws.
Chinese Exclusion Act
1880: As America begins a rapid period of industrialization and urbanization, a second immigration boom begins. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants arrive. The majority are from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, including 4 million Italians and 2 million Jews. Many of them settle in major U.S. cities and work in factories.
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act passes, which bars Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Beginning in the 1850s, a steady flow of Chinese workers had immigrated to America.
They worked in the gold mines,and garment factories, built railroads and took agricultural jobs. Anti-Chinese sentiment grew as Chinese laborers became successful in America. Although Chinese immigrants make up only 0.002 percent of the United States population, white workers blame them for low wages.
The 1882 Act is the first in American history to place broad restrictions on certain immigrant groups.
1891: The Immigration Act of 1891 further excludes who can enter the United States, barring the immigration of polygamists, people convicted of certain crimes, and the sick or diseased. The Act also created a federal office of immigration to coordinate immigration enforcement and a corps of immigration inspectors stationed at principle ports of entry.
Ellis Island Opens
January 1892: Ellis Island, the United States’ first immigration station, opens in New York Harbor. The first immigrant processed is Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork in Ireland. More than 12 million immigrants would enter the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.
1907: U.S. immigration peaks, with 1.3 million people entering the country through Ellis Island alone.
Photos: Immigration at Ellis Island
February 1907: Amid prejudices in California that an influx of Japanese workers would cost white workers farming jobs and depress wages, the United States and Japan sign the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Japan agrees to limit Japanese emigration to the United States to certain categories of business and professional men. In return, President Theodore Roosevelt urges San Francisco to end the segregation of Japanese students from white students in San Francisco schools.
1910: An estimated three-quarters of New York City’s population consists of new immigrants and first-generation Americans.
New Restrictions at Start of WWI
1917: Xenophobia reaches new highs on the eve of American involvement in World War I. The Immigration Act of 1917 establishes a literacy requirement for immigrants entering the country and halts immigration from most Asian countries.
May 1924: The Immigration Act of 1924 limits the number of immigrants allowed into the United States yearly through nationality quotas. Under the new quota system, the United States issues immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States at the 1890 census. The law favors immigration from Northern and Western European countries. Just three countries, Great Britain, Ireland and Germany account for 70 percent of all available visas. Immigration from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe was limited. The Act completely excludes immigrants from Asia, aside from the Philippines, at the time an American colony.
1924: In the wake of the numerical limits established by the 1924 law, illegal immigration to the United States increases. The U.S. Border Patrol is established to crack down on illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders into the United States. Many of these early border crossers were Chinese and other Asian immigrants, who had been barred from entering legally.
Mexicans Fill Labor Shortages During WWII
1942: Labor shortages during World War II prompt the United States and Mexico to form the Bracero Program, which allows Mexican agricultural workers to enter the United States temporarily. The program lasts until 1964.
1948: The United States passes the nation’s first refugee and resettlement law to deal with the influx of Europeans seeking permanent residence in the United States after World War II.
1952: The McCarran-Walter Act formally ends the exclusion of Asian immigrants to the United States.
1956-1957: The United States admits roughly 38,000 immigrants from Hungary after a failed uprising against the Soviet Union. They were among the first Cold War refugees. The United States would admit over 3 million refugees during the Cold War.
1960-1962: Roughly 14,000 unaccompanied children flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba and come to the United States as part of a secret, anti-Communism program called Operation Peter Pan.
Quota System Ends
1965: The Immigration and Nationality Act overhauls the American immigration system. The Act ends the national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s which favored some racial and ethnic groups over others.
The quota system is replaced with a seven-category preference system emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants. Upon signing the new bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson, called the old immigration system “un-American,” and said the new bill would correct a “cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation.”
April-October 1980: During the Mariel boatlift, roughly 125,000 Cuban refugees make a dangerous sea crossing in overcrowded boats to arrive on the Florida shore seeking political asylum.
Amnesty to Undocumented Immigrants
1986: President Ronald Reagan signs into law the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which grants amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
2001: U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) propose the first Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a pathway to legal status for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents as children. The bill—and subsequent iterations of it—don’t pass.
2012: President Barack Obama signs Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which temporarily shields some Dreamers from deportation, but doesn’t provide a path to citizenship.
2017: President Donald Trump issues two executive orders aimed at curtailing travel and immigration from six majority Muslim countries (Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia) as well as North Korea and Venezuela. Both of these so-called Muslim travel bans are challenged in state and federal courts.
2018: In April 2018, the travel restrictions on Chad are lifted. In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court uphold a third version of the travel ban on the remaining seven countries.
Immigration Timeline, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
LBJ on Immigration, LBJ Presidential Library.
The Nation's Immigration Laws, 1920 to Today, Pew Research Center.
1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Library of Congress.