Ellis Island Era Immigration Timeline
How It All Went Down
During the decade of the 1880s, more than 5.2 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Chinese Exclusion Act
Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning new immigration from China into the United States for ten years. Chinese Exclusion marks the first systematic federal legislation to restrict free and open immigration into the United States.
Immigration Act of 1882
The Immigration Act of 1882 imposes a "head tax" of 50 cents upon all immigrants and deems several categories of immigrants ineligible for citizenship. Besides Chinese, those barred include criminals, "lunatics," "idiots," and persons deemed "likely to become a public charge"—a category that will, in practice, eventually come to encompass most unmarried women.
In the midst of a severe economic depression, Congress accedes to demands from the Knights of Labor that it restrict immigration in order to reduce labor competition and ease downward pressure on wages. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 makes it illegal for American employers to import "aliens or to assist in their importation or migration into the United States under any contract made prior to the importation or migration for the performance of labor or service of any kind."
Statue of Liberty Dedicated
The Statue of Liberty, built by French workmen in celebration of a century of friendship with the United States, is dedicated in New York Harbor. The towering statue will become an icon for generations of American immigrants, who steam past it en route to the nearby immigration stations at Castle Garden and Ellis Island. In 1903, the base of the statue will be inscribed with the words of poet Emma Lazarus: "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!"
In the midst of nationwide labor unrest caused by workers' demands for an eight- hour workday, thousands of workers rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square to hear speeches by anarcho-syndicalist leaders. The rally remains calm and peaceful until Chicago police attempt to move in to disperse the crowd. At this point, an unidentified individual lobs a bomb into police lines, causing police to open fire upon the crowd. In the ensuing riot, at least seven policemen and four workers are killed. The anarchist organizers of the rally—mostly German immigrants—are tried, convicted, and executed for inciting the violence. The Haymarket Riot stokes fears among many Americans of the dangers of foreign-born radicalism.
The Ford Committee, an investigative committee of Congress, reports that unrestricted immigration of anarchists, criminals, and paupers into the United States has become a major social problem.
Hull House Founded
In Chicago, Progressive social reformer Jane Addams founds Hull House, the most famous of many "settlement houses" organized to aid the urban immigrant poor.
Immigration of the 1890s
During the decade of the 1890s, nearly 3.7 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Immigration Act of 1891
Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1891, expanding the categories of immigrants excluded from entering the United States. The act explicitly bans paupers, people with mental defects, polygamists, "persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease," and anyone convicted of a crime "involving moral turpitude." The act grants the federal Immigration Bureau total control over health inspections of immigrants and final say on whether or not any individual immigrant should or should not be allowed into the country.
Immigration Restriction League
Members of Boston's social elite found the Immigration Restriction League to advocate for exclusion of "undesirable" "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe. According to the League, the question of immigration is whether Americans want their country "to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic, and stagnant."3
Immigration of the 1900s
During the decade of the 1900s, nearly 8.8 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
President William McKinley dies from gunshot wounds one week after being shot at close range by a crazed Polish-American anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Although Czolgosz himself is not an immigrant, McKinley's assassination by the radical son of an immigrant family stokes fears among many Americans of political subversion by foreigners. In response, Congress will pass the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1901, barring entry into the United States of anyone judged by immigration agents to be an anarchist or radical extremist.
Wilson Writes History of the American People
In his History of the American People, future president Woodrow Wilson writes that contemporary immigration consists of "multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population."4
Naturalization Act of 1906
Congress passes the Naturalization Act of 1906, which, for the first time, makes some knowledge of the English language a requirement for citizenship. The act also creates the Immigration and Naturalization Service as a branch of the Commerce Department.
Immigration Act of 1907
Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1907, banning the entry of unaccompanied minors, the mentally disabled, and anyone with tuberculosis.
Congress passes the Expatriation Act, which changes naturalization laws to require that any American woman who marries a foreign man will immediately forfeit her U.S. citizenship and acquire the nationality of her husband.
The governments of the United States and Japan negotiate the so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement," a deal that allows the Americans to block Japanese immigration without offending the national pride of Japan. The United States agrees not to pass formal legislation excluding Japanese immigrants if Japan will prevent its own citizens from emigrating. The Americans also promise to crack down on nakedly racist anti-Japanese discrimination in California.
The United States Senate establishes a Commission on Immigration—better known as the Dillingham Commission, after its chairman, Vermont Senator William Dillingham—to study social problems related to the immigration issue. The Dillingham Commission will spend four years conducting extensive research before issuing its 41-volume final report.
Immigration of the 1910s
During the decade of the 1910s, more than 5.7 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
The U.S. government opens a new West Coast immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Known to Immigration Service officials as "The Guardian of the Western Gate," the Angel Island facility functions mainly as a detention center for Asians attempting to enter the country. Since the Chinese Exclusion Act bars the entry of all Asians except those with relatives already living in the United States, would-be immigrants at Angel Island are subjected to prolonged interrogation in which they must prove to skeptical agents that they are truly relatives of American citizens. Newcomers who fail to convince the Immigration Service of their legal right to enter the United States are deported back to China; even those who are eventually admitted will spend an average of two weeks in Angel Island's prison-like detention center awaiting approval for entry. A few will be locked up on Angel Island for as long as two years.
Immigration Deemed a Threat
After four years of investigation, the U.S. Senate's Dillingham Commission issues its final report on social problems related to immigration. The commission concludes that the recent surge of so-called "new immigrants" from Southern and Eastern Europe poses a grave threat to American culture and society and that Congress should take measures to restrict immigration.
Alien Land Law
The California State Legislature passes the draconian Alien Land Law, which bans all "aliens ineligible for citizenship"—meaning, essentially, Asians—from legally owning property in the state.
Eugenicists Publishes The Passing of the Great Race in America
Eugenicist author Madison Grant publishes The Passing of the Great Race in America, an influential pseudo-scientific attack against "undesirable" New Immigrants. Criticizing "the pathetic and fatuous belief in the efficacy of American institutions and environment to revise or obliterate immemorial hereditary tendencies," Grant suggests that the "great race" of Anglo-Saxon Americans will soon be overrun by "the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races" if the government won't block Southern and Eastern European immigrants from settling in the country.5
Immigration Act of 1917
Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1917 over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The act substantially expands the classes of immigrants barred from entry, making illiterates, alcoholics, stowaways, vagrants, "persons of psychopathic inferiority," and epileptics ineligible for admission to the country. The act also establishes the "Asiatic Barred Zone," a huge expanse of territory, stretching from Indonesia to Turkey, from which no migrants will be allowed to enter the United States. The act thus effectively bans all Asian immigration.
At the height of World War I, Congress passes the Jones-Shafroth Act, which grants U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans but also makes them eligible to be drafted into the American military for the first time.
Immigration of the 1920s
During the decade of the 1920s, more than 4.1 million immigrants arrive in the United States.
Emergency Quota Act
Congress passes the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, establishing an entirely new, ethnically discriminatory system for determining which immigrants to allow into the country. The act establishes, for the first time, a specific quota for the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States each year from each foreign country. The quota limits annual immigration from any given country to 3% of the number of people from that country resident in the United States in 1910. The new system forces a dramatic reduction in immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, but allows immigration from Northern and Western Europe to continue virtually unabated.
Congress passes the Cable Act, partially repealing the Expatriation Act of 1907. The new law allows American women who marry European men to retain their U.S. citizenship. However, American women who marry Asians will still forfeit their American citizenship.
National Origins Act
Congress passes the National Origins Act of 1924, refining the national quota system created in 1921. The new National Origins formula caps annual immigration from any given nation to 2% of the number of people from that country resident in the United States in 1890. By choosing 1890—a year that preceded the bulk of the "new immigration"—as the benchmark for setting national quotas, the law heavily favors Northern and Western Europeans at the expense of Southern and Eastern Europeans. The discriminatory National Origins system will remain in effect until 1965.
Oriental Exclusion Act
In conjunction with the National Origins Act of 1924, Congress passes the Oriental Exclusion Act, further tightening restrictions on Asian immigration by closing the few loopholes that had previously allowed a small number of Asians to enter the country. The new act blocks the immigration of foreign-born wives of Asians already living in America, and even the children of American citizens born within the Asiatic Barred Zone.
Congress creates the Border Patrol to help police its increasingly stringent immigration controls.
The state of Massachusetts executes Italian-born radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti, convicted of murder in a 1920 killing, become martyrs for many who believe they are innocent victims of anti-immigrant, anti-radical hysteria.
Crash of 1929
The Great Crash of 1929 marks the onset of the Great Depression. The collapse of the American economy will combine with the country's restrictive new quota laws to bring immigration to a virtual halt. In some years during the 1930s, more migrants leave the United States than enter. The great wave of immigration that began in the 1880s has ended.
Immigration of the 1930s
During the decade of the 1930s, only a bit more than 500,000 immigrants arrive in the United States.
Chicago Czech Mayor
Anton Cermak is elected mayor of Chicago, becoming the first Czech-American mayor of a major American city.
Albert Einstein, a German Jew and the world's greatest theoretical physicist, immigrates to the United States to escape the anti-Semitic persecution of Germany's new Nazi government.
Congress passes a law that will grant the American-occupied territory of the Philippines its independence in 1946. As the price of national independence, the law establishes that Filipinos will be stripped of their right to American citizenship and banned from immigrating to the United States.
Harry Bridges Case
The federal government attempts to deport militant left-wing labor leader Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the West Coast longshoremen's union, on the grounds that Bridges is a member of the Communist Party. Bridges denies the charges and wins the case, but the government will attempt to deport the radical labor leader several more times before finally giving up in the mid-1950s.
Angel Island Closes
The US government closes its Immigration Center on Angel Island in California's San Francisco Bay.
Alien Registration Act
Congress passes the Smith Act, which requires all alien residents of the United States to register with the government and criminalizes membership in or association with any group that advocates the overthrow of the government by force or violence. The Smith Act will be used to jail or deport hundreds of American Communists in the early years of the Cold War.
At the height of World War II, the federal government implements the Bracero Program, which imports thousands of agricultural laborers from Mexico and the Caribbean as temporary workers but grants them no right to pursue American citizenship or permanent residence.
Chinese Exclusion Ends
After 61 years, the U.S. government finally rescinds the Chinese Exclusion Act, which has become an embarrassment during a World War in which the United States and China are close allies in the fight against fascism. Chinese Exclusion's repeal is largely symbolic, however, as China is allotted a quota of just 105 immigrants per year.
War Brides Act
Congress passes the War Brides Act, which allows foreign women who married American soldiers overseas during the war to enter the country, even if they would normally be blocked from entry by restrictive quotas or the Asiatic Barred Zone.
Displaced Persons Act
In the wake of revelations of the human-rights horrors of the Nazi holocaust, Congress passes the Displaced Persons Act, for the first time creating a special allowance for refugees of totalitarian regimes to enter the country.
McCarran-Warren Immigration Act
At the height of the Cold War, Congress passes the McCarran-Walter Immigration and National Security Act of 1952, the first substantial modification to American immigration policy since 1924. McCarran-Walter reaffirms the National Origins system, though it makes certain adjustments to the quota formula. It also establishes preferences for skilled workers and substantially tightens counter-subversive security measures, facilitating the deportation of foreigners who have ever had any connection to Communists.
Ellis Island Closes
The U.S. government closes its famous Immigration Station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. The era of mass European immigration to the United States is over.