Since the ideas of “citizen,” “American” 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. To see how often, and in what ridiculous detail, these definitions have changed, 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: Women carry the legal status of their husbands. All foreign “free white persons” are naturalized, and only two years residency are required before one can become a citizen.
1790-1800: Nearly 100,000 immigrants enter the country, perhaps 20,000 of them as Catholic refugees fleeing political repression in France, Santo Domingo (Haiti) and Ireland.
1793: Congress passes the first Fugitive Slave Act.
1795: Residency requirement is extended to five years.
1798: Rising tensions with France lead to the four Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress raises the residency requirement to 14 years. All immigrants must register with the government within 48 hours of arrival, and all aliens who are citizens or subjects of a nation with which the U.S. is at war are forbidden from becoming American citizens. Only ten years after freedom of speech is ratified as part of the Constitution, the Sedition Act restricts speech that is critical of the federal government and results in the prosecution of many newspaper owners.
1800-1801: The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act are allowed to expire. But the Alien Enemies Act remains in effect, will be revised and codified in 1918 and remains in effect today.
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.
1868: This legal protection is ratified under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. States are forbidden to abridge such rights. For the first time, some people other than whites are actually considered to be 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. No restrictions are placed on Mexicans, but Chinese or Mexicans who enter are not considered immigrants because they are not eligible for citizenship.
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: With the so-called “Oriental Exclusion Act,” 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, “…few of whom,” says President Grant, “ are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.” The American Medical Association argues that Chinese immigrants “carried distinct germs to which they were immune, but from which whites would die if exposed.”
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Law suspends immigration of laborers for ten years. 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.
1885: The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibits the importation of foreigners under contract or agreement to perform labor, including “professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers (and) persons employed as strictly personal or domestic servants.”
1888: The Supreme Court affirms (and will repeatedly re-affirm) 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.
1892: The Geary Act amends the Chinese Exclusion Act, requiring all Chinese residents to carry a resident permit. Failure to carry it at all times is punishable by deportation or a year of hard labor. In addition, Chinese are not allowed to bear witness in court or receive bail in habeas corpus proceedings.
1896: The Plessy vs Ferguson decision (“Separate but equal”) legalizes racial segregation.
1898: The Supreme Court rules that a child born in the United States of parents of Chinese nationality who at the time had a permanent domicile and residence is a U.S. citizen. It results from a case in which a man born in the U.S. is denied re-entry after a trip to China.
1903: The Immigration Act of 1903, also called the Anarchist Exclusion Act, does just that.
1904: The government makes Chinese exclusion indefinite.
1907: Congress again lowers the threshold for exclusions to include “All idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, and persons who have been insane within five years previous; persons who have had two or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; paupers; persons likely to become a public charge; professional beggars; persons afflicted with tuberculosis or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons not comprehended within any of the foregoing excluded classes who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living.”
1910: The Angel Island Immigration Station, “Ellis Island of the West,” begins operation in San Francisco Bay. It is created to monitor the flow of Chinese immigrants entering the country after the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and will eventually hold hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By 1915, Japanese immigrants outnumber Chinese. At Ellis, only 1-3% of all arriving immigrants are rejected; at Angel, due to anti-Asian discrimination, the number will be about 18%. While Ellis arrivals enter the country almost immediately, Asians are frequently imprisoned on Angel for many months under cruel conditions. Since the intention is to deport as many Chinese as possible, the whole process is much more intrusive and demanding for them compared to other applicants.
1917: Congress first requires that immigrants pass a literacy test, in any language, not just English. It bars immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone and creates new categories of inadmissible persons, including: “alcoholics,” “anarchists,” “contract laborers,” “criminals and convicts,” “epileptics,” “feebleminded persons,” “idiots,” “illiterates,” “imbeciles,” “insane persons,” “paupers,” “persons afflicted with contagious disease,” “persons being mentally or physically defective,” “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” “political radicals,” “polygamists,” “prostitutes” and “vagrants.”
1918: Men of Asian ancestry who served in World War I receive the right of naturalization.
1919: American Indian soldiers and sailors receive citizenship. The Palmer raids during the Red Scare result in deportation of 500 non-citizens.
1920: The 20th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is ratified.
1921: The Emergency Quota Act adds two new features to immigration law: numerical limits on immigration and the use of a quota system. It restricts the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the 1910 census. This means that people from northern European countries have a higher quota and are more likely to be admitted than people from eastern Europe, southern Europe, or other, non-European countries. Based on that formula, the number of new immigrants admitted falls from 800,000 in 1920 to 300,00 in 1921-22.
1923: Asian Indians are ruled not eligible for naturalized citizenship.
1924: The National Origins Act restricts immigration from Eastern and Catholic, Southern Europe and Jews, and prohibits the immigration of Arabs, East Asians and Indians. It requires for the first time that immigrants have visas and introduces the concept of “having papers” to immigration policy. Congress gives the right to vote to Native Americans and establishes the Border Patrol on the Mexico-U.S. border. Almost none of those who immigrated “legally” prior to this point would be admitted under these far more stringent standards.
A key element of the Act is its provisions for enforcement. The longstanding ban on nonwhite immigration had rarely been enforced in practice. The Act provides funding and legal instructions to courts of deportation for non-white immigrants and Eastern and Southern European immigrants who exceeded their national quotas. Deportations of North African, Arabian, Persian, and East Indian immigrants are sometimes challenged in court with claims that these persons are “white.” Subsequent court rulings determine that Indians are not white and cannot immigrate. The law’s intention is “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” However, since persons of mixed white and Native American ancestry are considered white, the law continues to allow Latin Americans to immigrate as “white persons” in unlimited numbers, despite being ineligible for citizenship. The act puts an end to a period where the United States essentially had open borders.
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.
1940: Angel Island closes.
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. Among the 100,000 persons admitted are 1,500 German scientists, including many Nazis.
1946: Naturalization rights and small immigration quotas are granted to Asian Indians and Filipinos.
1948: The Displaced Persons Act allows for up to 200,000 European refugees and victims of Nazi persecution who have reached certain safe zones by certain dates to be admitted to the U.S. Due to these restrictions, it deliberately discriminates against some 250,000 Jews who have refused repatriation to the Soviet Union and Poland.
1949: 5,000 educated, anti-Communist Chinese receive 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.
1950: The Internal Security Act of 1950 bars members of communist or fascist organizations. By then, the former Nazis have been safely admitted and naturalized. Amendments to the 1948 law extend the total allotment of visas for DPs to approximately 400,000 persons, including 80,000 Jews.
1952: The Immigration and Nationality Act abolishes racial restrictions going back to 1790, including the “alien ineligible to citizenship” category, which de facto only applied to Asians. Japanese Americans and Korean Americans are allowed to naturalize. However, only small, token quotas of about 100 people per country are established for these countries. The law defines three types of immigrants: those with special skills or relatives of U.S. citizens who are exempt from quotas and who are to be admitted without restrictions; average immigrants whose numbers would exceed 270,000 per year; and refugees. It allows the government, once again, to deport immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in subversive activities and bars suspected subversives from entering. It is used to ban members and former members of the Communist Party from entry into the United States, even those who had not been associated with the party for decades.
1953: The Refugee Relief Act admits more persons from Southern Europe who had been excluded by quotas in the previous year. These include 60,000 Italians, 17,000 Greeks, 17,000 Dutch and 45,000 from communist countries. Applicants undergo a thorough security screening, including a verifiable history of their activities for two years prior to application, and must show guarantee of a home and job by a U.S. resident.
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: The Voting Rights Act enfranchises racial minorities. Congress abolishes “national origins” as a basis for allocating immigration quotas. It creates a seven-category preference system giving priority to relatives of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and professionals and other individuals with specialized skills, but for the first time it limits immigration from Mexico. This results in the beginning of large-scale illegal immigration. The removal of other racial and national barriers will significantly alter the demographic mix in the U.S. The INS continues to deny entry to homosexuals on the grounds that they are “mentally defective” or have a “constitutional psychopathic inferiority.”
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 already in the country. Congress requires employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status and makes it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants knowingly.
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.
1994: Congress passes the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Two million Mexican farmers are forced off the land and illegal immigration to the U.S. increases drastically.
2005: California officially apologizes for deporting Mexicans in the period of 1925-1931.
2006: The “Secure Fence Act” authorizes the construction of hundreds of miles of additional fencing, vehicle barriers, checkpoints, lighting, cameras, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles along the southern border.
2011: DHS completes some 650 miles of border walls and fences. The government later reports that illegal border-crossers had simply found new routes, that the fences had been breached thousands of times, and that the Secure Fence Act caused at least 2000 additional deaths.
Today: Legal immigrants are at their highest level ever, at just over 37,000,000. The issue of the undocumented 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 in any year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is revealed that Melania Trump’s parents were the beneficiaries of “chain migration.” The Supreme Court rules that immigrants can be detained indefinitely. The government separates thousands of immigrant children from their parents, even from those following all legal requirements to apply for asylum. The administration attempts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Although all its constituent sections have long been repealed, Chapter 7 of of the United States Code is still headed, “Exclusion of Chinese.”