Timeline of US Immigration and Migration


After Congress' four failed attempts to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama issues an executive order to begin the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offered protection from deportation and access to work permits for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, who obtained a high school diploma, and who have no criminal record. This meant that college students without legal status could apply for jobs upon graduation.


Our country’s population reaches about 309 million people, with 12.9% of those people born in other countries, most of those people from Latin American, the Caribbean, and Asia.

2013 2007 2006 2005

Congress attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, each proposed bill including a pathway to legal status and citizenship for the country's nearly 11 million people without legal status.


The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) Act, a bill offering the possibility of legal status and permanent residency for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, is first proposed, and fails to pass in Congress.


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including legal permanent residents, and allowed deportation for a broad range of convictions, including minor and nonviolent offenses. This means, for example, that someone pulled over for driving with a car taillight out could be at risk of being detained and deported.


The Immigration and Reform Act grants amnesty to some undocumented immigrants while making it illegal for employers to knowingly employ an undocumented immigrant.


The Hart-Cellar Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 abolishes the national quota-based immigration system, replacing it with a preference system based on individuals’ skills and family relationships with U.S. citizens. This legislation creates the visa system that is still in place today, and opens the doors to people from India, China, and Eastern Europe, who had long been prevented from immigrating.


The U.S. removes references to “race” in regards to naturalization.


The Displaced Persons Act of 1950 removes the exclusionary provisions of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.


Congress passes the Displaced Persons and Refugee Act, marking the first use of the term 'refugee' in American immigration policy. The Act allows 200,000 people to obtain visas to resettle in the United States with permanent residency, provided they had resided in Germany, Austria, or Italy in 1945. The Act excluded those who were from Poland or the Soviet Union and had not made it to Germany or Austria, or Italy by 1945.


With China as our ally in WWII, Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act, and grants people of Chinese heritage the right to become citizens.


President Roosevelt issues an executive order that authorizes the deportation and internment of Japanese-Americans. Approximately 120,000 people, the majority American citizens, were removed from their homes and businesses on the West Coast to internment camps.


In an agreement between the US and Mexican governments, the Bracero Program began. In place from 1942-1964, this brings nearly 5 million people, mostly from Mexico, to the United States as contract laborers to work in farming or railroad construction.

1940- 1970

The Second Wave of the Great Migration sees nearly 5 millions African Americans leave the South for the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, seeking job opportunities and relief from violence and discriminatory laws in Southern states.


The Alien Registration Act requires the registration of all immigrants in the United States over the age of 14. Individuals had to report to a registration office for fingerprinting, or risk deportation.


Many immigrants continue to arrive outside of the quota numbers, and the Labor Department introduces a process called 'pre-examination,' by which an individual can be exempt from deportation and obtain legal permanent residency. Between 1935-1958, about 58,000 immigrants apply for this process, which involved traveling outside of the country and re-entering, and almost all of the applications were accepted.


As a provision of the Johnson-Reed Act, the National Origins Act institutes a quota that caps national immigration at 150,000 and completely bars Asian immigration, though immigration from the Western Hemisphere is still permitted.


The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 creates a quota system, which limits annual European immigration to 2% of the number of people from that country living in the United States in 1890, as determined by the 1890 Census. This meant that many people immigrating from Southern and Eastern European countries, that had only small populations in the U.S. in 1890, are unable to immigrate under this quota.


The Emergency Quota Act restricts immigration from a given country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the U.S. in 1910.


The Jones-Shafroth Act grants U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.


The Immigration Act of 1917 restricts immigration from Asia by creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which Congress defined to encompass most of Asia, including Afghanistan, India, Central Asia, and all of the Pacific Islands except Japan and the Philippines. In this law, Congress also enacts a literacy requirement for immigrants, which requires immigrants to be able to read 40 words in some language. The law marks a turn towards more restrictive immigration policy, supported by anti-immigrant groups like the Immigration Restriction League, and opposed and challenged by many business owners and politicians, including the President Woodrow Wilson, who had vetoed the law.

1916- 1930

About 1.6 millions African Americans, escaping segregation, violence, and lack of opportunities, leave the South for Northern cities.

1910- 1940

Angel Island Immigration Station opens in 1910, becoming the main port of entry for people arriving on the West Coast. Where about 2% of people arriving at Ellis Island were detained or deported, about 18% of people arriving to Angel Island were turned away and sent back to their country of origin. Angel Island regulated people entering from Asia, and officers at Angel Island interrogated and detained people at Angel Island much more severely than at Ellis Island, leading to the station being known more as a detention center rather than a point of entry.


Our country’s population reaches about 92 million people, with 14.7% of those people foreign-born, mostly Europeans from, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Northern Europe.


After President William McKinley is shot by a Polish anarchist, Congress enacts the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which prohibits the entry into the US of people judged to be anarchists and political extremists. This means that an arriving person could be asked about their political beliefs, and his or her answer would determine whether they could enter the country.


The Geary Act extends the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten years, and adds the requirement that all Chinese residents to register and obtain a certificate of residence. This meant that someone without this registration could be deported. In 1902, Congress makes the Exclusion Act permanent, with no end date.

1892- 1954

Ellis Island serves as the main East Coast entry point for all immigrants travelling in steerage. With the opening of Ellis Island, immigration policy becomes regulated by the Federal, instead of State, Government. Passengers arriving from Europe with first- or second-class ship tickets do not pass through Ellis Island, and immigrants who do stop here must undergo a health examination. About 12 million immigrants, mostly Europeans, enter through Ellis Island in 62 years. About 2% of immigrants who arrived were sent back, or deported, due to perceived political beliefs or health conditions.


Congress makes “persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” those convicted of a ‘misdemeanor involving moral turpitude,” and polygamists ineligible for immigration.


The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibits any company or individual from bringing foreigners into the United States under contract to perform labor. The only exceptions are those immigrants brought to perform domestic service and skilled workers needed to help establish a new trade or industry in the U.S. This meant that arriving immigrants weren’t supposed to say they had a job in the United States.


The Chinese Exclusion Act becomes the first law to restrict immigration from a particular region, and prohibits Chinese immigration of “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” to the United States for a period of ten years. While the Act allowed entrance of Chinese students, merchants (business people), teachers, and diplomats, people who were not laborers found it difficult to prove they were not, leading to increased detention and deportation.


The Naturalization Act of 1870 extends the right to naturalize to people of African descent, though Asians are still excluded.


The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship to people born in the United States, but excludes untaxed Native Americans.

1855- 1990

Castle Garden serves as the country’s largest immigration processing center in these years. Over 8 million people enter the United States through this port, mostly Irish and German immigrants. In this period, people can enter the country without requirements or regulations, and we have no visa system in place.

1790- 1802

The Naturalization Act of 1790 creates the first law establishing requirements for naturalization, or the process of becoming a citizen. The legislation restricts citizenship to male foreign nationals who are “free white persons” of “good moral character,” and who have two years of residency in the United States. The Naturalization Act of 1795 keeps the same requirements but extends the residency to five years, and the Naturalization Act of 1798 increases residency requirements to 14 years. In 1802, the Jefferson administration then revises the Naturalization Act of 1798, reducing the residency requirement again to five years. This meant that women, Native Americans, people of African descent were unable to become citizens.