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US Immigration 101 – Origin Story

Our MPC Immigration Legal Team is pleased to release the first of a new series of blogs exploring the history and framework of the US immigration system. While you may not be an immigration law and policy wonk like our team members, we hope this series provides insights into the major landmarks on the road leading to our current complex web of immigration laws and policies.

In this first installment, we will delve into the origins of US immigration law in the 18th century and how the first attempts at regulating immigration set the stage for the conversations we are still having today around the rights of immigrants, indigenous peoples, US citizens, and national security. It hasn’t always been a pretty story but understanding successes and failures from our history can inform our present and enlighten our future.

The 1790 Naturalization Act (and subsequent 18th century related Acts)

Every comic book hero or villain has their own origin story, and so does the complex beast that is US immigration. Picture it, 1790, in a newly established nation, a grand experiment is underway and those charged with leading the young democratic republic have to decide who will be considered an “American.”  More importantly, they have to decide which individuals get to share in the full freedoms, bounty, and rights of US citizenship.

This first immigration law implemented in the US, the 1790 Naturalization Act (1 Stat. 103), set the parameters by which someone who was not born in the US could become a US citizen through naturalization.

This attempt at a first uniform rule for naturalization extended US citizenship to those who:

  • Resided in the US for two years;
  • Was a person of good moral character;
  • Swore allegiance to the US Constitution; and
  • Was a “free white person.”

The years of residency required was extended to five years in 1795, extended to fourteen years in 1798 (Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 – see below), and reverted back to the five-year requirement in 1802. The requirement of being a “free white person” was not removed until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in the mid-19th century.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 and related laws, which most scholars of American history agree was one of the worst stains on the presidency of John Adams and the Federalist Party, contains significant and stringent provisions aimed at limiting what one Federalist in Congress called “hordes of Wild Irishmen” coming to “distract our tranquility.”

Of the stringent and highly criticized provisions of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 are the following:

  • Extended period residency in the US for naturalization from five to fourteen years;
  • Levied a tax of 50 cents ($11 in today’s USD) against a ship’s owner for each passenger, who is not a US citizen, arriving by ship from a foreign port;
  • Authorized the President to apprehend, restrain, and remove noncitizens who are citizens or subjects of countries with which the US is at war; and
  • Allowed the Executive Branch to deport any noncitizen deemed to be “dangerous to the place and safety of the United States.”

The naturalization provisions were repealed in the early 19th century. The most controversial provisions (in italics above) were permitted to expire. However, these controversial provisions stained the legacy of President John Adams and were reintroduced in various forms during the Civil War in the 19th century and both of the World Wars of the 20thcentury.

So, what have we learned in our first installment? US immigration law and policy has always been a product of the times in which it was enacted and hasn’t always lived up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. However, understanding a nation’s historic successes and failures can inform the present and enlighten the future.

Next up in our US Immigration 101 blog series will be US Immigration 101 – A Nation Divided and will focus on US immigration law and policy in the 19th century. We hope you’ll tune in!