Since the ideas of “America” and “Whiteness” are inherently unstable, their definitions have had as much to do with who one is not as they have had with who one is, and they have changed regularly in their exclusion and inclusion of various immigrant groups. Let’s review this history:
16o8-1784: Over half of all immigrants to the British colonies arrive as indentured servants.
1774: The Continental Congress leaves it to each state to decide who shall be a voting citizen.
1776: Full citizenship is given to white male property owners, with six states granting it to all white males whether they have property or not. Some states require membership in a specified religion.
1789: The Secretary of War is placed in charge of relations with Native Americans.
1790: All foreign “free white persons” are naturalized. Women carry the legal status of their husbands.
1793: The first Fugitive Slave Act is passed.
1812-21: Six western states join the union with full white male suffrage. Four of the original states abolish property requirements.
1830-1839: The Trail of Tears. The Indian Removal Act calls for relocation of all Indians west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokees contest it and the Supreme Court decides in their favor. But Andrew Jackson ignores the court and forces the Five Civilized tribes of the Southeast move to the “Indian Territory.” Several thousand die on the journey.
1850: The Second Fugitive Slave Act enables enslavement of many free Blacks.
1853-56: The United States acquires 174 million acres of Indian lands through 52 treaties, all of which it will subsequently break.
1856: North Carolina is the last state to abolish the property requirement. Previously barred Catholics and non-Christians are enfranchised. Some states allow immigrants not yet naturalized to vote.
1857: Under the Dred Scott decision, no black person can be a U.S. citizen. Oregon is admitted to the Union as a state with a law (not abolished until 1927) that excludes all blacks from settling there.
1866: The Civil Rights Act declares all persons born in the U.S. except Indians to be natural citizens.
1869: The Territory of Wyoming grants women suffrage in state elections.
1870: The 15th Amendment enfranchises blacks. The South responds with poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and terrorism. Naturalization of black immigrants (but not Asians) is permitted.
1871: Residents of the District of Columbia lose the right to vote for mayor and city council. Indians in the West are forbidden to leave their reservations without permission.
1874: The Supreme Court rules that it is not unconstitutional to deny women the right to vote.
1875: Congress bars entry of Chinese, Japanese, prostitutes, felons, and contract laborers, to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” It effectively bars all Asian women.
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Law suspends immigration of laborers for ten years. Later laws will include anarchists, communists and the illiterate. The first federal general immigration law is enacted, prohibiting from entering the U.S. “…any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Prior to this date, nearly anyone except for the Chinese and Japanese who crossed the borders had been considered legal. Only after this date is the term “illegal immigrant” ever used.
1888: The Supreme Court affirms (and repeatedly re-affirms) that corporations have all the rights of people. They are, effectively, citizens.
1890: The Federal government assumes control of immigration and begins construction of Ellis Island Inspection Station.
It will eventually process 12 million immigrants, who will become the ancestors of 100 million Americans. To enforce the ban on Asians, the federal Bureau of Immigration, the first body charged with enforcing federal immigration law, is created.
1896: The Plessy vs Ferguson decision (“Separate but equal”) legalizes racial segregation.
1904: The government makes Chinese exclusion indefinite.
1917: Congress first requires that immigrants pass a literacy test, in any language, not just English.
1918: Men of Asian ancestry who served in World War I receive the right of naturalization.
1919: American Indian soldiers and sailors receive citizenship.
1920: The 20th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is ratified.
1923: Asian Indians are ruled not eligible for naturalized citizenship.
1924: The National Origins Act restricts immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and Jews, and prohibits the immigration of Arabs, East Asians and Indians. Its intention is “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” It requires for the first time that immigrants have visas, introducing the concept of “having papers” to immigration policy. Congress finally gives the right to vote to Native Americans. The Border Patrol is established on the Mexico-U.S. border. Almost none of those who immigrated “legally” prior to this point would be admitted under today’s far more stringent standards.
1929-1933: During the Depression, more people emigrate from the United States than to it.
1930s: Until this decade, most legal immigrants are male.
1936-1945: The U.S. refuses to admit most Jewish refugees of the Nazis.
1941: 110,000 Japanese-Americans are interned in camps. German-Americans and Italian-Americans are not affected.
1942: Responding to the labor shortage created by the war, the U.S. imports (ultimately) hundreds of thousands of temporary laborers from Mexico in the Bracero Program.
1943: Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act, but limits Chinese immigration to 105 persons per year.
1945: The War Brides Act permits the immigration of Asian spouses and children of American servicemen. 1,500 German scientists, including many Nazis, are admitted to the U.S.
1946: Naturalization rights and small immigration quotas are granted to Asian Indians and Filipinos.
1949: 5,000 educated Chinese are granted refugee status after the Chinese Revolution.
1950: The Internal Security Act of 1950 bars members of communist or fascist organizations from immigrating to the United States. By then, the former Nazis have been safely admitted and naturalized.
1952: Right of naturalization and a small immigration quota are granted to Japanese.
1954: The U.S. deports over a million Mexicans in Operation Wetback. Ellis Island closes.
1957: Utah becomes the last state to permit Native Americans to vote.
1965: Congress abolishes “national origins” as basis for allocating immigration quotas. The Voting Rights Act enfranchises racial minorities.
1967: The Bracero Program ends.
1974: Residents of the District of Columbia regain the right to vote for mayor and city council but still lack voting representation in Congress.
1980-2000: Congress allows massive immigration of Cubans while turning back Haitians and those seeking political refuge from El Salvador and other right-wing regimes.
1986: Republican President Ronald Reagan gives amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
1990: Congress increases the limits on legal immigration and revises all grounds for exclusion and deportation, including homosexuality and AIDS. Numbers of female legal immigrants reach parity with numbers of males.
1991 to 2000: The U.S. admits more legal immigrants, (ten to eleven million), than in any previous decade.
2005: California officially apologizes for deporting Mexicans in the period of 1925-1931.
Today: Legal immigrants are at their highest level ever, at just over 37,000,000. The issue of the undocumented – or as reactionaries say – illegals – is more controversial than ever. Trump wins the presidency in part by promising to build a border wall that Mexico will pay for. In his first year he deports fewer people than there were in any year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is revealed that Melania Trump’s parents were the beneficiaries of “chain migration.” Although all its constituent sections have long been repealed, Chapter 7 of Title 8 of the United States Code is still headed, “Exclusion of Chinese.”