Immigration: A Timeline | theSkimm

The US has been going through immigration policy mood swings since the American Revolution. At first, only "free white persons" can become citizens. And over the next several decades, immigration (mostly from Europe) is fairly free flowing, because Thomas Jefferson and friends want more people to come party in the USA. In 1868, an NBD thing called the 14th Amendment happens. It says anyone born in the US is a US citizen. Full stop. And a couple years later, people with African heritage are allowed to become citizens too. But in the next couple decades, things get complicated. America decides its open door policy has been a little too open. It doesn't want to let in Chinese workers. Or prostitutes. Or criminals. Or too many people from Eastern Europe. In the early 1920s, the country passes a quota law that becomes the basis for immigration policy for the next several decades. It caps how many immigrants can come to the US based on nationality.

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Immigration and Nationality Act: The Civil Rights movement has the country doing some soul searching about how it treats immigrants. An act from the 50s gets rid of race as a deciding factor on who gets to come to America. Then President Johnson signs this law getting rid of quotas that favored certain nationalities. Now immigrants get the green light based on things like family connections and work skills. This also means way more immigrants start coming from Asia and Latin America instead of Europe.

Refugee Act: The Vietnam War sent hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians fleeing the threat of a communist regime to come to the US. Cue the US realizing it needed a more comprehensive refugee policy. The number of refugees the US accepts every year goes from less than 20,000 to 50,000. The act also puts programs in place to help refugees adjust to life in the US.

Immigration Reform and Control Act: Establishes a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants who came to the US before 1982. But also tries to put the kibosh on illegal immigration by sanctioning employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. Problem: it didn't really work. The law was fairly easy for both employers and workers to sidestep. And the number of undocumented immigrants coming into the US goes into overdrive in the following decades.

Reagan signing immigration legislation
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Immigration Act: Opens the country's doors to more immigrants, in part to make it easier for foreigners to come work in the US. The number of immigrant visas goes up to 700,000 over the next few years. This act also gives the attorney general the authority to temporarily shield immigrants from deportation if they're escaping natural disasters or armed conflicts.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act:After the 1993 World Trade Center attack, Washington is feeling the heat to crack down on security. This act makes it easier to deport or detain both legal and undocumented immigrants based on their criminal history. It still stands today. And critics say it goes too far in how it punishes immigrants for minor and non-violent offenses.

Homeland Security Act: Post 9/11, President Bush creates the Dept of Homeland Security to prioritize the country's fight against terrorism. This reorgs the country's immigration system too so everyone reports to DHS. That includes Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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Secure Fence Act: Congress OKs more than $1 billion for 700 miles of fencing along US-Mexico border. This is the law that President Trump will later use to justify plans to expand the wall.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act: An attempt to overhaul US immigration policy by bulking up border patrol, while also creating a temporary worker program to let undocumented immigrants live and work legally in the US for a time. This is a top priority for President Bush, who put immigration reform high on his domestic wishlist. Eventually, the Senate kills the bill when it doesn't get the 60 votes needed to move forward.

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): President Obama unwraps his signature immigration policy. It was an executive order, meaning he didn't need Congress to be on board. DACA lets undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as kids come "out of the shadows," get the OK to work temporarily, and be protected from deportation.

Presidential Election: President Obama beats Republican Mitt Romney to win a second term. That's thanks in part to a big boost from Latino voters. The GOP, apparently feeling very morbid, puts together a post-2012 election "autopsy." It concludes that the party "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

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Gang of Eight: A squad of senators from both sides of the aisle put their heads together and come up with an immigration overhaul plan. It includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, billions of dollars to bulk up border security, and more visas for foreign workers. The bill clears the Senate but falls flat in the House.

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The Kids Aren't Alright: Over the summer, tens of thousands of people from places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador flood across the border into the US. Many of them are kids, and many are traveling alone. They quickly overwhelm US detention centers. President Obama asks Congress for billions for border security, and the authority to send the kids back home.

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Immigration Reform is DOA: Over the summer, House Speaker John Boehner tells President Obama that any kind of real immigration reform is a no-go in Congress. That's in big part because House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary for re-election after signaling a willingness to compromise on immigration reform...pushing everybody else to the right, to the right. So Obama goes it alone. He uses executive action to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the US without the fear of deportation. But a group of GOP-leaning states said "stop right there," and served Obama with a lawsuit. By 2016, that suit goes all the way to the Supreme Court. But since the Supremes are down a member, they tied 4-4. Meaning, a lower court ruling blocking Obama's moves is left in place.

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Executive order: President Trump issues an executive order temporarily banning people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and temporarily banning all refugees. This revised order came weeks after version 1.0 got held up in court over questions as to whether it was constitutional. Now, people looking to get into the US from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen will be denied for at least 90 days. Current visa and green-card holders from these countries are still valid.

Bye bye DACA: In September, Trump decided to end DACA. Psst…that’s that Obama-era program that lets hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as kids live and work in the US legally. Trump said DACA was unconstitutional, and that it’s up to Congress – not the White House – to set immigration law. Trump gave lawmakers 6 months to come up with a replacement program. But before they could get to it, he struck up a deal with top Dems to protect the young undocumented immigrants that DACA used to cover. The new deal also gave border security a boost. Not present for this deal? Republicans. Who still control Congress aka would need to pass this new plan before it becomes law.