A Look at the History of Immigration Law

The Naturalization Act of 1790


  • Non-whites weren’t allowed to naturalize.
  • Applicants were required to be residents for 2 years.
  • Applicants needed to be of “good moral character” and a “free white person.”

The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first of its kind in the US and a bid from the country to limit the number of immigrants gaining residency.

In 1795, the initial residency term of 2 years was hiked to 5 years. It was then further extended to 14 years in 1798, before being returned to 5 years in 1802. During this period, only those classed as a “free white person” with “good moral character” were eligible for residency.

Prejudices Reduced in 1870

In 1870, the clause of the act limiting residency to those classed as a “free white person” was lifted and the country began to welcome those of African heritage to apply for residency.

Restrictions, however, were added in 1875 to limit the type of individual arriving in the country. They sought to limit “less than reputable” individuals from entering the USA, by placing bans on known:

  • Criminals
  • Carriers of contagious disease
  • Polygamists
  • Anarchists
  • Beggars
  • Importers of prostitutes

Shifting Immigration Patterns in the Early 1900s

Not long after the turn of the century, immigration patterns that had been stable for over 50 years began to shift.

The USA saw increased numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans and aimed to restore the previous balance. They imposed restrictions in 1921 and 1924 to cap the total number of annual immigrants.

The Disestablishment of Racial Restrictions

In 1943, immigration restrictions that had long stood at the center of US policy began to fall apart. Race was officially removed as a reason for exclusion from the USA.

The Landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Aimed at reuniting families and prioritizing skilled immigrants, the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act also added restrictions for those entering the US from the western hemisphere. This put a cap on the number of Latin Americans who could enter the USA.

Recent Immigration Law Changes

The most recent law changes have come under the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2014, he put the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in place to protect minors who had illegally entered the country. The Deferred Action for Parents of American and Lawful Residents (DAPA) was also put in place shortly after. Expansion of these, however, is on hold as a result of legal challenges from 26 US states.

This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding The History of Immigration Law, or other Immigration Law matters, please feel free to contact Phil D. Ortega at 480.461.5330, log on to udallshumway.com,  or contact an attorney in your area. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona and is a full service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.