History of Major Immigration and Refugee Policy in the U.S.

By Kristin Nolan, Guest Blogger

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

–          The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus (1883)

In 1883, Emma Lazarus was trying to raise money to construct the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty. You know, that enormous 305-foot copper statue at the mouth of the New York harbor? Facing Europe lofting a torch—ensemble completed by a toga and crown? Well, only 151 feet if you exclude the pedestal and foundation she stands on top of…

In Lazarus’ attempts to get the pedestal constructed, she wrote the poem above, referencing the Colossus of Rome (Rome being the world leader of its day), which was cast in bronze and put at the base of the statue in 1903, lest those who visited in the future forget its purpose.

statue-of-liberty-224400Much has been written about Lady Liberty, but her symbolism to those tired huddled masses, the homeless, those who felt like ‘wretched refuse’ coming to America is invaluable. There have been countless stories written by Holocaust survivors and others fleeing Europe following WWI and WWII who specifically cite the Statue as long awaited relief—feeling its power as they sailed into the New York City harbor. The statue faces southeast, purposefully aimed towards those coming by boat from Europe or elsewhere. The message is clear. You are welcome, and we will provide light as you enter the safe harbor of our shores.

The message may have been clear in 1883, however, the current messaging for refugees and immigrants is dramatically different. The world is currently undergoing a massive realignment, accompanied by wars, the shifting of power dynamics, economic dip and boom, and increased access to information. People are risking their lives to escape and find the refuge that will provide their children with safety. However, as these changes occur, “the other” is often blamed for economic downturns and crime.

It is easy to make great the Statue of Liberty, to espouse her many virtues and call into question the behavior of those who seek to defy her awesome and inspiring message. However, the history of immigration in the United States is a lengthy and complicated story, filled with an enormous degree of nativism, isolationism, and racial inferiority claims for “non-white” persons. However, there have been moments throughout where immigration and refugee policies have adapted to enable those hoping to come to this country or reduce restrictions in times of need.

Our country has come a long way since the Statue was erected; however, there are several historic moments in our nation’s history where legislators have provided assistance to those looking to start a new life in the States as well as to the vulnerable and disenfranchised. Below is a brief, and by no means all-encompassing, history of U.S.  policies which encouraged positive movements towards welcoming  immigrants and refugees:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1866: This act was the first official law that ratified rights for all U.S. citizens, including those of African descent. The purpose of the law was to support the 13thAmendment, but it was twice vetoed until 1871, when it was ratified, following the passage of the 14th Amendment.
  • Naturalization Act of 1870: This act enabled a set of controls for the naturalization process (i.e. becoming a U.S. citizen) as well as penalties if it was done incorrectly or avoided. This law was extended to persons of African descent, which was the first time immigration rights had been extended to African Americans.
  • Emergency Quota Act of 1921: This was a major turning point in immigration law wherein quotas were established to manage refugee populations entering the U.S. This was a result of economic upheaval following WWI and increasing unemployment across the nation. The quota system, otherwise known as the National Origins Formula, relied on Census data from 1910 to determine how many people from certain countries could enter the U.S. based on their current populations in the U.S. Limits were set at 3% of the number of current residents from that country of origin living in the U.S. (Example: If there had been 100,000 Englishmen living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 Census, then only 3,000 Englishmen would be permitted to enter the country per year.) This gave preferential treatment to those from Western Europe, but excluded Latin American, Asian, and African populations. Immigrant and refugee populations dropped dramatically as a result. This system of quotas based on country of origin continued until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 revised the law to allow preference for immigrant’s skills and family relationships with existing U.S. citizens, which allowed for the immigration of skilled workers as well as for family members to reunite.

Also known as: Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, Immigration Restriction Act of 1921, Per Centum Law, Johnson Quota Act

  • Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:Following WWII, a special convention was held by the U.N. to discuss the definition of a refugee, the rights of those granted asylum, as well as the responsibilities of nations who harbor refugees. This convention and the definition of refugees has been modified several times since then, most notably in the 1967 Protocol, which was ratified by the U.S.[1]

Also known as: 1951 Refugee Convention

  • Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962:This act was passed in 1962 to meet the urgent needs of refugees and displaced persons. This act was leveraged in recent history by the Clinton Administration to assist refugees from the Balkans and Nepal in 2001. It was also cited by the Obama Administration in 2009 to raise funds for Palestinian refugees and those in Gaza.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Within this act, the previously existing quota system was altered to avoid preference for white northern Europeans. This new law continued to allocate country of origin limits, but allowed a total of 170,000 visas per year, more evenly divided among countries. This act did not restrict immediate relatives of U.S. citizens nor ‘special immigrants’.

Also known as: Hart-Cellar Act

  • The United States Refugee Act of 1980:This act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in addition to the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of1962 to establish a system for processing and resettling refugees in the U.S. This law updated the definition of refugee, increased the annual quota of refugees to 50,000 per fiscal year, allowed the President to increase the number of refugees admitted in a state of emergency, and established the Office of U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs as well as the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
  • Immigration Act of 1990:This act, enacted during the first Bush Administration, reformed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to allow 700,000 immigrants per year (1992-1994) then reduced the allowance to 675,000 per year to follow. This major law also refined the employee-based visas (including the EB-1 through EB-5 and the H-1B visa), a lottery program to increase immigration for underrepresented countries under the quota system, removed English language testing for immigrants, eliminated the exclusion of homosexuals under the 1965 Act, and also granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for those unable to return to their home country due to violence, environmental disaster, or other issues. Employment based visas were strengthened by the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998, the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act of 2000, and the H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004.
  • DREAM Act: While this piece of legislation has never officially been passed, the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2001 is a major piece of legislation in today’s immigration reform community. The premise of the DREAM Act is that there would be a multi-phased procedure for granting qualifying alien minors conditional and then permanent residency. This legislation faces enormous opposition, and includes clauses that the individual be of “good moral character”, similar to earlier immigration legislation which is up to interpretation.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): This law was enacted during the Obama Administration  in 2012, which allows immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children two years lenience on deportation proceedings, and eligibility for a work permit in the U.S. This piece of legislation has been under enormous pressure since the beginning of the Trump Administration, which has made moves to phase out the program, and activists are fighting to maintain DACA in its current condition.

Uphold our great tradition of welcome by walking with those who seek safety and freedom. Contact your elected officials and express your concern for refugees and immigrants in our country and abroad. Visit our advocacy page for more resources.


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