KTSM 9 News

100 years of immigration challenges in the U.S.

Photo by Justin Hamel

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Immigration into the U.S. has faced significant challenges over the last century despite the country’s founding as a melting pot for different peoples.

May 19 marks 100 years since the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act that implemented the country’s first quantifiable limits on the number of immigrants allowed to legally enter the U.S.

Although the policy was established in the early 20th century, anti-immigrant policies existed before.

In 1855, for example, inspections of immigrants upon their arrival to the U.S. began when Irish refugees arrived after fleeing the potato famine. The nation’s first large-scale immigration restriction policy was in 1882 with the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

More robust efforts to block Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigration occurred in 1907 with the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”  that sought to alleviate the tension over the immigration of Japanese laborers despite an 1894 agreement that promised free immigration. 

Japan agreed to deny passports to workers seeking to enter the U.S. and also recognized the U.S.’ right to exclude Japanese immigrants who held passports from other countries such as Canada or Mexico. 

By the 1920s, anti-immigrant prejudices and job scarcity led to the conclusion of the country’s “come one, come all” policies.

The Immigration Act of 1924 — otherwise known as the National Origins Act — concretized the limits established by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and also established more stipulations.

The number of immigrants accepted into the U.S. was determined on a country-by-country basis designed to exclude certain ethnic groups. The figures were based on the ratio of different ethnic groups in the U.S. in 1890, which was prior to large waves of southern and eastern European immigrants.

The visa system as we know it today was established in 1924 with the implementation of the immigrant quotas and Ellis Island was repurposed into an immigrant detention center. In 1954, the U.S. government determined it wasn’t worth the upkeep and has since been transitioned into a learning center and museum for tourists and scholars.

The U.S.’ immigrant quota system proved fatal during the 1940s as thousands of refugees were denied entrance into the country while trying to escape Hitler’s Nazi takeover of Europe. 

Ethnicity-based immigrant quotas in the U.S. were not abolished until 15 years later when the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed as an ethnically neutral way to monitor immigration. 

Immigration into the U.S. has been heavily concentrated with Asian and Latin American immigrants since the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965.

During the 1970s, laws were passed to protect refugees fleeing war violence in Indochina that later expanded to relief for other immigrants from China, Nicaragua and Haiti. 

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that legalized millions of undocumented immigrants from Latin America based on specific conditions. The law also imposed consequences on any employer who hired unauthorized laborers.

More efforts to protect undocumented immigrants by granting temporary protective status that prevented the deportation of many people from countries facing armed conflicts, natural disasters or other exteme conditions.

The 1990 Immigration Act raised the legal admission of immigrants to 50 percent more than it was, relaxed controls on temporary workers and limited the government’s power to deport immigrants based on ideology. Additionally, the act abolished judicial recommendations against deportation that ended the discretionary power of sentencing judges to grant deportation relief to criminal offenders.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, immigration policies were passed in response to terrorism and national security threats.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996 added new crimes to “aggravated assault” and created expedited removal policies for arriving immigrants suspected of lacking proper documentation or participating in fraud by falsifying documents. 

The policy was amended (also in 1996) with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that established new grounds of inadmissibility and deportability, expanded the list of crimes that constitute an aggravated felony, created accelerated removal policies and reduced the scope of judicial review during immigration decisions. This law enhanced the mandatory detention of immigrants subject to standard deportation proceedings if the immigrant committed certain prior criminal offenses. 

Moreover, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded the number of Customs and Border Protection agents, introduced new border control measures like physical barriers, reduced government benefits offered to immigrants, established stricter punishments for undocumented immigrants and tightened requirements for asylum seekers.

Most immigration policies prior to 2012 were buttressed by efforts to promote border security, enforcing laws prohibiting the employment of unauthorized laborers and tightened criteria for eligibility. 

In 2001, the USA Patriot Act expanded the discretionary power for excluding immigrants from entering the U.S. and expanded monitoring efforts of foreign students.

By 2002, national security remained top-of-mind with the passage of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act that ordered the development of an electronic data system that would share information as it pertains to immigrant admissibility and removability. Additionally, it established an integrated entry-exit data system, the U.S.-VISIT program.

The Homeland Security Act established the Department of Homeland Security that took over almost all of the functions of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship Services.

Congress enacted the Secure Fence Act in 2006 after the Senate failed to pass immigration reform legislation passed in the House in 2005.

The law ordered the construction of more than 700 miles of double-reinforced fencing to be placed along the U.S.-Mexico border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in an effort to stymie illegal immigration and drug trafficking. 

Additional lighting, vehicle barriers, border checkpoints and the installation of advanced equipment (sensors, cameras, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles) were also authorized.

In 2012, President Barack Obama switched course through executive action to permit young adults brought to the U.S. illegally to apply for deportation relief and permission for employment.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA — was expanded in 2014 and established similar programs for certain undocumented immigrant parents of U.S.-born children.

More than 25 states challenged the order that would delay the deportation of 5 million undocumented immigrants and a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in February 2015 that temporarily blocked the provisions of the executive order as states sought to shut down the program. 

Obama-era policies were challenged during the Trump administration, especially when it came to immigration.

In 2017, the Trump administration attempted to impose travel bans on Muslim-majority countries that many lawmakers argued was motivated by Islamophobia.

Trump’s campaign was anchored on creating a massive border wall that he claimed would be paid for by Mexico. At the same time, the administration announced plans to phase out DACA.

The Trump administration announced the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (or MPP, otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico”) that required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while awaiting U.S. immigration court hearings. 

Last March, the Trump administration announced all MPP hearings were temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then later permanently suspended.

In December 2020, more than 40,000 MPP cases were completed, with only 638 people being granted relief.

After former President Trump’s exit from office, President Joe Biden worked to reform the country’s immigration policies by outlining comprehensive reform and issued more than eight executive orders related to immigration.

On Inauguration Day, Biden ceased the Trump-era national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, effectively halting and diverting funds from construction of the border wall. 

Another executive order was issued by Biden to create a comprehensive regional framework that would confront the causes of migration, manage migration through North and Central America. The order also establishes safe and orderly processing of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The order addresses the humanitarian issues central to the immigration crisis that previous administrations failed to recognize during the legislative process.

Despite myriad executive orders, Congress has yet to pass meaningful immigration legislation in the last 20 years.

For local and breaking news, sports, weather alerts, video and more, download the FREE KTSM 9 News App from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.