The first immigration laws in the US were established soon after the country itself, with the Naturalization Act of 1790. This act established the first rules for acquiring citizenship in the US, requiring that immigrants live in the US for a minimum of 2 years, be a “free white person,” and “of good moral character.” The residency requirement was later extended to 5 years in 1795, 14 years in 1798, then reduced to 5 again in 1802. In 1819, Congress enacted the first significant Federal law regarding immigration, requiring that immigration be reported to the Federal government. No more immigration controls were implemented for another 45 years, until 1864, when Congress centralized control over immigration under the Secretary of State and voted to allow the importation of contract laborers.
It wasn’t until 1875 that true Federal control of immigration, and the refusal of entry, began. Congress voted to refuse to allow prostitutes and convicts, and in 1888 they expanded the law to exclude the Chinese, as well as lunatics, idiots, and anyone seen as likely to become a public charge. This law also established a head tax for each person entering the country.
Over the next 30 years, Congress enacted a series of legislation that allowed for the deportation of aliens, created a Bureau of Immigration under the Treasury Department, increased the head tax on immigrants, required knowledge of English, and added 11 more categories to “exclusions” list.
By 1921, Southern and Eastern Europeans, rather than Western, had become the predominant immigrants to the US. To combat this, the Federal government introduced the first numerical limits on immigration, setting temporary quotas based on nationality. These quotas were refined in 1924 when Border Patrol was established, and in 1929 these were made permanent.
In the early 1940s, much of the US labor force had gone to fight in WWII, leading to the “Bracero Act” of 1943, which allowed agricultural workers from South and Central America, and repealed the Chinese exclusion law. After the war ended, legislation was adopted to allow US service members to bring foreign-born spouses and children to the US, and to have them naturalized. These laws were expanded to include Asian spouses in 1952.
Throughout the 1950s, much of the legislation regarding immigration was focused on excluding potential communists, bringing in skilled workers, and providing aid to refugees. By 1965 the nationality of the origin quota system was abolished, though an overall numeric cap on immigration for each country remained, along with a preference system for those with relatives in the US, as well as skilled workers and refugees. In 1978 the per-country caps were lifted, and a worldwide cap of 290,000 was put in their place.
Since the 1980s, most immigration reform has focused on reducing illegal immigration, increasing background checks and ID requirements, reducing terrorism, and balancing homeland security and humanitarian concerns with regards to refugees. This legislation culminated in the construction of permanent fencing along portions of the US/Mexico border, with proposed additional fencing being debated.