Summary of United States Immigration Laws 1882

Prior to 1882, there were not any formal acts that controlled immigration. Below is a brief summary of the Immigration Acts passed beginning in 1882. By the end of 1954, the transatlantic steamships and ocean liners were almost exclusively for pleasure trips. The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives is primarily a resource for documents in the 1880-1954 time period.


The Act of 1875 merely prohibited the importation of women for purposes of prostitution and the immigration of aliens "who are undergoing conviction in their own country for felonious crimes, other than political..."

The Act of 1882 levied a head tax of fifty cents "for every passenger not a citizen of the United States," and forbade the landing of convicts, lunatics, idiots, or of "any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge."

The Act of 1885 forbade the immigration of aliens under contract to labor.

The Acts of 1891 and 1903 made a number of further additions to the excluded classes (such as anarchists, polygamists, and epileptics), the latter Act raising the head tax to two dollars; but it was not before 1907 that this tax was raised to four dollars, and imbiciles, the feeble-minded, persons afflicted with tuberculosis, those phyically defective, etc., were excluded. A highly desirable illitetacy test was favored by the Senate, but stricken out by the House of Representatives. This was later implemented in 1917. Post World War One saw a drastic reduction and restriction on immigration with a quota system begun in the 1920s.


1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first piece of legislation that limited immigration into the U.S. The 1882 Act called for a 10-year moratorium on Chinese entering the U.S. This act stemmed mainly from white agitation, much of it led by second generation, Irish Americans in San Francisco and Los Angeles against cheap Chinese labor. This 10-year ban was to be extended indefinitely in 1892.

1882 / 1891

1882 and 1891, Congressional laws were passed which prohibited immigrants who were paupers, insane or had a contagious disease. The government also instituted a 50-cent head tax on each immigrant.


1885 the Contract Labor Law, which had allowed employers to bring immigrants into this country to work for cheap wages, was abolished.


1907 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan to stop the importation of Japanese laborers to America.


1917, literacy tests were required of immigrants. Immigrants were required to write and read a language. This language did not have to be English. The 1917 Immigration Act increased the entry head tax to $8.

In the 1920's, Congress instituted a series of "quotas" on immigration.


1921 Emergency Quota Act provided that, based on the 1910 census, three percent of a European nationality that resided in the U.S. could be permitted to enter the country each year.


1924 Johnson-Reed Act lowered this quota to two percent and used the 1890 census. It also provided that in 1927 no more than 150,000 immigrants per year would be admitted on a national origins basis. These quota laws favored the Western European countries, such as England, France and Germany. No restrictions were placed on our Western Hemisphere neighbors such as Canada and Latin America. Asians were totally barred.

Another feature of selection which the 1924 law provided was the preference and non quota status given to certain relatives of American citizens—preferences for fathers and mothers, children under twenty-two and husbands—and the non quota status of wives and children under eighteen.

1930s and 1940s

The 1930's and 1940's found U.S. quotas going unfilled. This occurred because of the Depression and World War II.

After World War II, Congress, upon the urging of President Truman, made special provisions to allow displaced or homeless war victims to enter the U.S.


The McCarran-Walter Act, an immigration law passed that kept a quota system with strong provisions against aliens with Communist or subversive backgrounds. The ban against Orientals was removed.

More Recent Immigration Policies

Current U.S. immigration policy is based on the Immigration Act of 1965, which ended the national origins quota system. But, the new law still has a limit on the number of immigrants that can be admitted in a single year. This limit favors countries in the Eastern Hemisphere, in that the Western quota is 120.000, while the Eastern is 170,000. The new act also provides for the quick admittance of immigrants with needed or vital skills, such as doctors and scientists.


Historical Immigration and Naturalization Legislation

For further information of the laws that shaped the United States Immigration policy from 1790 through 1996 see U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services


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