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Scarinci: How US Immigration Policy Has Evolved From the Founding Fathers to Modern Day

By Donald Scarinci, February 13 2023 11:57 am

The United States is often called a nation of immigrants. With the exception of Native Americans, the vast majority of Americans are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants or enslaved people. Yet the issue of immigration has been hotly debated since the earliest days of our country to the modern day. 

Founding Fathers’ View on Immigration

The Founding Fathers largely favored immigration, hoping the new country would serve as a place for refugees. After all, seven of the 39 signers of the Constitution were immigrants, including Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson. 

As described by President George Washington in 1783, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Despite most people agreeing that immigration into the U.S. should be permitted, the Founding Fathers also expressed concerns, particularly with regard to whether immigrants would assimilate into the new nation. These concerns later resulted in calls to make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain citizenship. According to Alexander Hamilton, “[T]he safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on the love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.”

Evolution of U.S. Immigration Laws

The 1790 Naturalization Act was the first federal law to dictate who could become a U.S. citizen, restricting eligibility to free whites of “good moral character” who had lived in the U.S. for at least two years. As described by Pew Research, additional restrictions banning  criminals, individuals with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes were added in the 1870s. Thereafter, the U.S. enacted its first laws restricting immigration by specific ethnicities. 

Immigration laws enacted in 1921 and 1924 sought to restore previous immigration patterns that were predominately from northern and western European countries. The laws limited total annual immigration and established numerical quotas based on nationality that favored Europeans. In 1965, a new system was established under the Immigration and Nationality Act that prioritized family reunification and skilled immigrants and eliminated limits on immigration based on national origin. In 1986, Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was enacted to provide amnesty for certain long-term residents to gain legal permanent status. The law also increased enforcement of existing immigration laws. Over the past several decades, some immigration laws have responded to terrorism concerns, while others have sought to create a path for citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country.

Supreme Court and Congress to Shape Immigration Policy

Today, no other country in the world has as large an immigrant population as the United States. However, immigration is one of the most heated political issues of our time. Policy debates include topics ranging from legalizing unauthorized immigrants that are already here to responding to the flood of new immigrants seeking asylum at our borders.

As lawmakers debate potential immigration reforms, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide several key issues, including the fate of Title 42, a public health measure put in place by the Trump Administration during the pandemic to prevent migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.

In November, the Court also heard oral arguments in United States v. Texas. The suit, brought by the States of Texas and Louisiana, challenges a Biden Administration policy prioritizing the apprehension and deportation of three groups of noncitizens: suspected terrorists, individuals who have committed crimes, and those recently detained at the border. In addition to deciding the legality of the policy, the justices also heard oral arguments on whether the states are allowed to bring the lawsuit in the first place. Accordingly, the Court’s decision may impact the executive branch’s ability to set immigration policy, as well states’ ability to pursue legal action when they disagree.

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