In the years after the American Civil War, large increases in immigrant populations prompted an interest in restricting immigration. Americans were particularly wary about large numbers of immigrants from China. These concerns prompted the creation of unprecedented restrictions on immigration, including such laws as the Chinese Exclusion Act. For the first time in American history, immigration quotas were established that limited what national and ethnic groups could immigrate to the United States.
Immigration Act of 1875
The first major immigration law passed after the Civil War was the Immigration Act of 1875. At the time, Americans were concerned that Chinese immigrants -- who often immigrated to work on the transcontinental railroad -- were being brought to America against their will. In addition, some suspected that Asian immigrants brought prostitutes and criminals with them. Therefore, the Immigration Act of 1875, also known as the Page Act, forbade forced Chinese and Japanese immigration, and set up penalties for bringing prostitutes from abroad. Inspections of incoming foreign ships were also established to look for illegal immigrants.
Chinese Exclusion Act
By 1882, Americans wanted to go beyond restricting immigration against one's will to banning Asian immigration altogether. For a time, however, Congress was restricted by treaty obligations to China that forbade the United States from banning all Chinese immigrants. The 1880 Angell Treaty, however, negotiated changes in Chinese-American relations that allowed the U.S. to restrict, but not altogether prohibit, Chinese immigration. With this in hand, Congress later passed the infamous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigrants for a 10-year period. It also required all Chinese-Americans to carry a card identifying their purpose for immigrating to the U.S.
Geary Act and 1902 Expansion
While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was meant to be limited to a 10-year period, Congress decided to extend the act for another decade in 1892. This extension was passed in the form of the Geary Act. In addition to banning Chinese immigration for another 10 years, the bill also required all Chinese-Americans to permanently carry a residency card. Chinese-Americans obtained the card by registering with the government, and if they were ever caught without the card, they faced deportation back to China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was made permanent in 1902, and was not repealed until the 1940s.
Immigration Act of 1924
The year 1924 marked the largest restrictions placed on immigrants in American history. For the first time, immigration restrictions affected all groups -- not just Asians. By the turn of the 20th century, Americans were disquieted about immigrants of all groups, including large numbers of Eastern and Southern Europeans. In 1917, Congress passed a law requiring literacy tests for incoming immigrants, which effectively banned numerous individuals. This anti-immigrant sentiment culminated in the 1924 Immigration Act. For the first time, no nonwhite immigrants were admitted into the United States from anywhere in the world. Even Europeans were subject to quotas, with countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland given significantly higher limits than countries like Italy and Poland.
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