Section 3: Laws of Immigration

By 1875, the United States government had taken control of all immigration regulations.   Federal law had already established certain restrictions on immigration, but most immigrants were welcomed.  The United States was a growing nation and had plenty of jobs and land for newcomers.

In 1882, the United States government, under pressure from residents of California, excluded Chinese citizens from admission to the United States.  Some Chinese had already come to California where they worked in gold mines and on the railroad. 

By 1888, the United States began to see that some immigrants might be considered “undesirable.”  New immigration laws allowed the nation to expel, or deport, immigrants who broke the laws.  However, even with new restrictions, the foreign born population of the U.S. continued to grow.  By 1890, nearly 15% of the population was foreign-born.   During the 1880s and 1890s, more immigrants arrived from southern and eastern Europe than northern and western Europe.

In 1891, the Bureau of Immigration required that immigrants have money of their own to pay for their journey to the U.S.  Women traveling alone had to be met at the port of entry by a man.  The law assumed that decent women did not travel alone.  Many officials thought that a woman alone was probably a prostitute or other sort of criminal.

The Bureau of Immigration also excluded people with communicable diseases.  Each immigrant was inspected for health problems.  One of the common diseases was trachoma, a disease of the eyes.   Immigration officials opened the immigrants’ eyes with a small hook to check for signs of trachoma.  The hook was not sterilized between uses.  Any person whose eyes were infected was sent back to their country of origin. 

By 1903, immigrants had to prove that they were not beggars by demonstrating that they had enough money to take care of themselves.  Poor people were not admitted into the country.

In 1906, the immigration law required that immigrant adults have some knowledge of English.  It was acceptable for a family to be admitted if one adult understood a little English.  In 1910, literacy (the ability to read and write) in some language was added to the requirements for admission. 

By 1910, some Americans began to doubt the wisdom of admitting to the United States so many people from foreign countries.   A wave of anti-immigrant feeling spread through the country.  Those who opposed immigration were particularly concerned about immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The people from eastern and southern Europe tended to have dark eyes, dark hair, and darker skin tone than those from northern and western Europe.

In 1921, Congress passed new immigration laws restricting admission of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to 3% of each nationality already in the U.S.  This law drastically reduced immigration from some parts of Europe, but World War I (1914-1918) had already cut off immigration for most Europeans. 

In 1924, another new immigration law was based on even lower quotas. The new law opened the immigration process to a smaller number of people with roots in England and Western Europe. Quotas were based on the ancestral nationality of the people of the United States in 1890. The law admitted only 2% of each established national group to the United States through immigration. There were far more people in the nation’s population with English or Western European ancestors than people from Asia or southern or eastern Europe. In addition, people who were not eligible for citizenship, such as Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese were no longer admitted. The law served to preserve the dominant European heritage of the United States. However, following World War II, the U.S. found it necessary to enact emergency provisions to manage global resettlement after the war. Congress revised the Immigration Act in 1952. 

Why is this important? Agricultural states like North Dakota actively sought immigrants to settle on farms.  The hard labor of willing immigrants and their growing families were needed to bring prosperity to North Dakota.  Immigration laws meant that people with at least a little education, some money, and an inclination to be hard workers would come to North Dakota.  Immigrants contributed heavily to building the state’s economy. 

On the other hand, immigration laws meant that some immigrants, especially the Germans from Russia, would find it difficult to bring more members of their families to the U.S. after World War I.  The process of chain migration came to an end in 1914 when war broke out in Europe, but immigration was severely limited by further legal restrictions in 1921 and 1924.