USA Immigration Trends

There are no official statistics of U.S. immigration prior to 1820. Congress in 1819 enacted the Steerage Act (also known as the Manifest of Immigrants Act) requiring the submission of incoming foreign passenger records to the Treasury. The published reports of these data annually established records of immigration progress in this country.

Today, Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics is responsible for the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics in United States.

The Steerage Act was one of the early federal legislation on immigration. Prior to this Act, federal law passed in 1790 established a uniform rule for naturalization of white persons only by setting the residence requirement at 2 years. Subsequent to the Steerage Act, the legislative activities shaped the body of immigration law we know today:

  • 1798’s Naturalization Act enabled deportation and extended the residence requirement to 14 years; the residence requirement was subsequently reduced to 5 years in the 1802 Naturalization Act.
  • Congress in 1864 centralized control over immigration under the Secretary of State and legalized the importation of contract laborers.
  • In 1875, federal regulation was established to prohibit the entry of prostitutes and convicts.
  • 1882 saw the passage of the Chinese exclusion law.
  • 1885 saw the repeal of the previous law permitting admission of contract laborers.
  • In 1888, federal law was adopted to provide for expulsion of aliens.
  • In 1891, the Bureau of Immigration was established under the Treasury Department.
  • 1903 saw the consolidation of US immigration laws; polygamists and political radicals were excluded from immigration.
  • In 1906, laws were enacted making English a basic requirement for immigration; standardized the naturalization process and established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.
  • 1907 saw further restrictions of immigration by increased head-tax; people with physical or mental defects or TB were excluded; unaccompanied children were also excluded. Japanese immigration was restricted.
  • 1917 saw further exclusions of illiterates, persons of psychopathic inferiority, person entering for immoral purposes, alcoholics, stowaways, and vagrants.
  • 1921 saw the first quota system according to entering nationalities.
  • In 1924, preference quotas were introduced; Border Patrol was established.
  • 1929 made permanent the 1924 preference quotas system.
  • 1940 saw the requirement of registration and fingerprinting for all aliens over the age of 14.
  • 1943 saw the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws; importation of agriculture workers were allowed.
  • A 1946 law allowed immigration of families of U.S. armed forces personnels.
  • 1948 saw the first U.S. policy permitting refugees (set at 205,000 over two years).
  • 1950 saw the expansion of the exclusion list and an address reporting requirement for aliens.
  • In 1952, immigration laws were consolidated; specifically enacted were a (1) national quota system, (2) limitation from the Eastern Hemisphere, (3) preference for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and (4) stricter security and screening standard.
  • In 1953, refugee quota was increased to 405,000 over a two years period.
  • In 1965, the national origins quota system was abolished; but the Eastern Hemispheric and country ceilings, and a seven-category preference system were maintained.
  • 1976 saw the ceiling limit applied to the West Hemisphere.
  • 1978 saw the combination of hemispheric ceilings into one global limit of 290,000.
  • 1980 saw the removal of refugees as a preference category and the global ceiling was reduced from 290,000 to 270,000.
  • 1986 saw the comprehensive immigration reform (The Immigration Reform and Control Act), which granted amnesty to some, prohibited employers from hiring illegal aliens, created a new agriculture worker category, and established a visa waiver program for certain non-immigrants.
  • A 1989 law adjusted non-immigrant nurses who met certain criteria from temporary to permanent status.
  • 1990 saw another comprehensive immigration reform which (1) increased immigration cap, (2) created a separate entry category for family- or employment-based sponsorships, (3) revised exclusion and deportation grounds, (4) granted power to the Attorney General to allow temporary protection for certain undocumented aliens, (5) revised non-immigrant admission categories, (6) revised the visa waiver program, (7) revised naturalization authority and requirements, and (8) revised enforcement activities.
  • 1996 saw several legislations that enhanced deportation and detention categories.
  • 2005 (post 9/11) saw a change in visa limits and tightening of the asylum application process.


The various immigration laws, regulations, executive actions, and agency policies certainly affected the number of aliens and immigrants entering into, or were deported from, this country. Immigration number also fluctuated with periods of war, economic changes, and other global events. For example, there were declines in immigration prior to the Civil War, World War I, and World War II; and immigration seems to rise post wars. There was a climb in immigration during the frontier expansion.

Between 1879 and 1914 when the United States saw the peak of its Second Industrial Revolution, there are several spikes in immigration. During the Great Depression, immigration dropped significantly. When the Potato Famine hit Ireland, this country saw the largest incoming of Irish immigrants (approximately 1.5 million); and when the California Gold Rush began, the United States drew world-wide immigration (e.g., over 2,000 Chinese, and over 30,000 from France alone).

 Figure 1 – Annual Number of U.S. Legal Permanent Residents

Note: The immigration data-chart represent persons admitted lawfully during the 12-month fiscal year ending September 30 of the year designated.

Immigration Data Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulations of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years); available at U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration data available at

The Yearbooks were compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, prior to 2002. Data between the years of 1820 – 1997 are not presented in their perspective yearbooks, but are presented in a table on page 23 of the 1997 Yearbook. The numbers for the years are not all representative of permanent legal status. Rather, those years’ data are representative of the following: from 1820-67, figures represent alien passengers arrived at seaports; from 1868-92 and 1895-97, immigrant aliens arrived; from 1892-94 and 1898-1997, immigrant aliens admitted for permanent residence. It should also be noted that from 1892-1903, aliens entering by cabin class were not counted as immigrants. Land arrivals were not completely enumerated until 1908.

MPI is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank established in 2001. It is “an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think-tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide.” MPI works to analyze migration policies at the local, national, and international levels. It seeks to assist in the active and intelligent management of migration so that policies and procedures can be responsibly administered. The MPI goal is to bring benefits to immigrants and their families, communities of origin and destination, and sending and receiving countries.

The blog is in part of the Mission Continues blog series, written by Jin Kong and therefore all words and thoughts are his own and not a reflection of GCWAC. 

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