Congress Has Always Set Limits on Immigration and Citizenship

We the people of the United States,” are the first seven words, written in large letters, of the U.S. Constitution, composed in 1787 and formally adopted when ratified by nine states in 1788. It was assumed that “the people” — defined then as free adults — were citizens of both their states of residence and of the larger federal republic. The Framers sought to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But that category included not just their personal descendants; Article I, Section 8 empowered Congress “to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” Thus, immigrants could become Americans, just as migrants — like Alexander Hamilton from the British colony of Nevis — could become citizens of the New York colony.

The young republic had porous, even indeterminate borders, and lacked the capacity to prevent foreign settlers from crossing them. But most migrants came by sea, to a limited number of ports. In 1790, the first Congress passed a Naturalization Act, limiting citizenship to free white persons “of good character” after two years of residence.

That period was extended to five years in 1795 and 14 years between 1798 and 1802. The law effectively ended indentured servitude, and Congress ended the slave trade in 1808, as soon as the Constitution permitted. The 1790 and subsequent acts implicitly recognized that no foreigner had a right to enter the U.S., but that foreigners could, after meeting certain conditions, could become full American citizens. As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, when immigrants and their offspring from Europe read the Declaration’s words that all men are created equal, “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”

Note, however, that the naturalization acts prohibited citizenship for some, typically those with communicable diseases or no visible means of economic support. During the first century of the republic, these restrictions were generally enforced by state government authorities, notably in busy entry ports like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The opening of the Ellis Island inspection station in New York harbor in 1892 coincided with the federal government taking over this function.

Large-scale surges of immigration by peoples from cultures unfamiliar to most Americans (Irish Catholics and Germans in 1846-57, Eastern and Southern Europeans in 1892-1914) prompted movements to bar or limit immigrants from certain sources. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated with Japan a so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement to end Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the West Coast in 1907. In 1924, Congress passed an immigration act setting quotas on immigrants reflecting the ethnic proportions of the nation in 1890, largely prohibiting migration from southern and eastern Europe.

The 1965 immigration act ended these restrictions, but the enormous surge of immigration from 1982 to 2007 came primarily from Latin America and Asia, with far more extended family members than those with high-skill qualifications. As Congress debates revisions proposed by President Trump and others, one should remember that although the U.S. has been called a nation of immigrants, no foreigner has a right to enter the country, and America has never allowed totally unlimited immigration.