Timeline of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Laws

by | 3 Jan 2021

From the Naturalization Act of 1790 through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, a large number of laws placed restrictions on naturalization and immigration in and to the United States. Knowledge of the laws that regulated immigration and citizenship is important for understanding the conditions under which your ancestors may have been granted or lost their citizenship (did you know that it was possible for females born in the U.S. to lose their citizenship for a time?), or records that may have been created based on their alien or citizenship status.

Major U.S. Immigration & Citizenship Laws

The United States government established its first uniform naturalization rules on 26 March 1790. Known as the Naturalization Act of 1790, it allowed an individual to apply for citizenship if they were a free white person (male or female), of “good moral character,” and had lived in the United States for at least two years. Individuals were also required to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Citizenship was automatically extended to children of successful applicants under the age of 21, regardless of their birthplace. Children of U.S. citizens born outside of the United States were considered natural-born citizens, provided “that the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.” Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, any individual who desired to become a citizen was to apply to “any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least.” Aliens could be naturalized not only in federal courts but also in state and local courts.

“…any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law to support the Constitution of the United States, which Oath or Affirmation such Court shall administer, and the Clerk of such Court shall record such Application, and the proceedings thereon; and thereupon such person shall be considered as a Citizen of the United States.”

The United States Naturalization Act of 1795 repealed and replaced the Naturalization Act of 1790, increasing the period of required U.S. residency from two to five years; introducing the Declaration of Intention requirement, or first papers, and a two-step naturalization process; and conferring the status of citizen, rather than “natural born” citizen.

“That any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, or any of them, on the following conditions, and not otherwise:—First. He shall have declared an oath or affirmation, before the supreme, superior, district or circuit court of some one of the states, or the territories northwest or south of the river Ohio, or a circuit or district court of the United States, three years, at least, before his admission, that it was bona-fide, his intention to become a citizen of the United States…”

The Naturalization Act of 1798 further increased the amount of time necessary for immigrants to become naturalized citizens in the United States from five to fourteen years. There was, however, a built-in one-year window that allowed aliens living in the United States prior to 29 January 1795 to become U.S. citizens under the previous five-year residency requirement. This act was one of four acts passed during 1798 known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, tightening restrictions on foreign-born Americans, and discouraging free speech against the federal government.

“…he shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, five years, at least, before his admission, and shall, at the time of his application to be admitted, declare and prove, to the satisfaction of the court having jurisdiction in the case, that he has resided within the United States fourteen years, at least, and within the state or territory where, or for which such court is at the time held, five years, at least, besides conforming to the other declarations, renunciations and proofs, by the said act required, any thing residence therein to the contrary hereof notwithstanding…

An addition to the 1798 act “to establish a uniform rule of naturalization,” eliminated the requirement for aliens residing in the United States between 18 June 1798 and 14 April 1802 to file a Declaration of Intention prior to their petition for citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1804 was also the first to specifically address the naturalization of a woman through her husband, stating that “after an alien shall have complied with certain directions his widow and children made citizens of the U. States,” if they/she appeared in court and took the oath of allegiance and renunciation.

“…That when any alien who shall have complied with the first condition specified in the first section of the said original act, and shall have pursued the directions prescribed in the second section of the said act, may die, before he is actually naturalized, the women and children of such alien shall be considered as citizens of the United States, and shall be entitled to all rights and privileges as such, upon taking the oaths prescribed by law…”

The 1819 Steerage Act established standards to be followed by ships carrying passengers to the United States, including a requirement that all vessels reaching American shores deliver passenger lists to customs officials, who were required to send copies to the U.S. State Department, which, in turn, submitted the lists to Congress. The Steerage Act also limited the numbers of passengers on arriving and departing ships (two passengers to every five tons of ship), and instituted requirements for minimum provisions to be available onboard.

“…That every ship or vessel bound on a voyage from the United States to any port on the continent of Europe, at the time of leaving the last port whence such ship or vessel shall sail, shall have on board, well secured under deck, at least sixty gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted provisions, one gallon of vinegar, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for each and every passenger on board such ship or vessel…”

The 1847 Passenger Act, or “An act to regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Merchant Vessels” established standards to be followed by ships carrying passengers to the United States, and penalties for captains not meeting these standards.

“That if the master of any vessel owned in whole or in part by a citizen of the United States of America, or by a citizen of any foreign country, shall take on board such vessel, at any foreign port or place, a greater number of passengers than in the following proportion to the space occupied by them and appropriated for their use…on the lower deck or platform one passenger for every fourteen clear superficial feet of deck, if such vessel is not to pass within the tropics during such voyage; but if such vessel is to pass within the tropics during such voyage, then one passenger for every twenty such clear superficial feet of deck, and on the orlop deck (if any) one passenger for every thirty such superficial feet in all cases…”

The Citizenship of Children Born Abroad and of Married Women Act passed by the legislature in February 1855 guaranteed the citizenship of children of citizens born abroad, as well as the citizenship of women either already naturalized under the existing laws or an alien woman by marriage to a U.S. citizen.

“…That any woman who might lawfully be naturalized under the existing laws, married, or who shall be married to a citizen of the United States, shall be deemed and taken to be a citizen.”

The 1855 Passenger Act, passed on 3 March 1855, was the first act to regulate the proportion of passengers to the tonnage on steam vessels, with a limit of one passenger per two tons of vessel. Each passenger was also to be allowed sixteen feet of deck space. If the cargo was to be stored on passenger decks, it had to be confined to lockers, and that space could not count toward the use of space allowed to passengers. Requirements were also specified for the size of passenger berths, number and type of passenger provisions, and the presence of ventilators and a privy where passengers could shower. Captains were required to enforce discipline among passengers. Ships were required to be inspected by customs, and deaths on board reported, with a fee imposed of $10 per death.

“That all vessels employed as aforesaid, shall have on board…well secured under deck for each passenger, at least twenty pounds of good navy bread, fifteen pounds of rice, fifteen pounds of oatmeal, ten pounds of wheat flour, fifteen pounds of peas and beans, twenty pounds of potatoes, one pint of vinegar, sixty gallons of fresh water, ten pounds of salted pork, and ten pounds of salt beef, free of bone, all to be of good policy…”

In the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, stunned the nation by declaring that all blacks—enslaved as well as free—were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional and said that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

“…No one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had been brought here as articles of merchandise. The number that had been emancipated at that time were but few in comparison with those held in slavery; and they were identified in the public mind with the race to which they belonged, and regarded as a part of the slave population rather than the free. It is obvious that they were not even in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union…”

On 16 April 1862, the Senate and Assembly of California passed “An act to protect Free White Labor against competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California,” widely referred to as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862, which imposed a $2.50 tax per month on anyone of Chinese origin in the state who applied to work in the mines or pursue certain other forms of business. This amount equaled more than half of what most Chinese workers earned in a month and was just one of many legislative enactments that targeted Chinese immigrants during this time. Also in 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” This legislation outlawed any transport of Chinese subjects “known as coolies” for the purposes of being “held to service or labor.” The term ‘coolie’ generally referred to anyone from China involved in manual labor. However, another section of the law proclaimed that “any free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject should proceed unabated so long as a U.S. consul attested to the voluntary status of the migrant through a written certificate.”

“That no citizen or citizens of United States, or foreigner coming into or residing within the same, shall . . . vessel to procure factor, owner, or otherwise, build, equip, load, or otherwise prepare, any steamship for the purpose of procuring from China . . .  the inhabitants or subjects of China, known as “coolies” . . . to be disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.”

On the 4th of July, 1864, the 1864 Immigration Act was passed to encourage immigration to the United States. The act validated labor contracts made by immigrants before arrival, to be enforceable in U.S. and state courts; exempted immigrants from compulsory military service “during the existing insurrection” unless such emigrant voluntarily declared his intention to apply for U.S. citizenship; established the position of Commissioner of Immigration, reporting to the U.S. Secretary of State; and established the office of Superintendent of Immigration for New York City.

“…And be it further enacted, That said commissioner of immigration shall, at the commencement of each annual meeting of congress, submit a detailed report of the foreign immigration during the preceding year, and a detailed report of all expenditures under this act…”

Congressional amendments to the Enrollment Act of 1865 included, in Section 21, the loss of U.S. citizenship, or the right to become a citizen, as a penalty for draft evasion or desertion.

“…all persons who have deserted the military or naval service of the United States, who shall not return to said service, or report themselves to a provost-marshal within sixty days after the proclamation hereinafter mentioned, shall be deemed and taken to have voluntarily relinquished and forfeited their rights of citizenship and their rights to become citizens; and such deserters shall be forever incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under the United States, or of exercising any rights of citizens thereof….”

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 established the citizenship of “all people born in the United States who are not subject to any foreign power,” without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, and conferred legal equality with respect to the protection of the fundamental rights of person and property. This overturned the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) that excluded African Americans from citizenship. The 14th Amendment, ratified on 9 July 1868, reaffirmed state and federal citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States, regardless of race.

“…Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States…”

The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization rights to former enslaved Africans not born in the United States. Asian immigrants remained excluded from the privilege of citizenship.

“…And be it further enacted, That the naturalization laws are hereby extended to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”

Named after its sponsor, Representative Horace F. Page, the Page Act of 1875, or “An act supplementary to the acts in relation to immigration,” was the first federal immigration law to prohibit the entry of immigrants considered “undesirable.” The law further spelled this out to include immigrants from China, Japan, or other Asian countries that were brought in as forced laborers; woman transported to the United States for the purpose of prostitution; and any person convicted of a crime. Illegal immigrants that were denied entry had the right to contest in a court of law.

“…That it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing a sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, or whose sentence has been remitted on condition of their emigration, and women ‘imported for the purposes of prostitution.’ Every vessel arriving in the United States may be inspected under the direction of the collector at the port at which it arrives, if he shall have reason to believe that any such obnoxious persons are on board; and the officer making such inspection shall certify the result thereof to the master or other person in charge of such vessel, designating in such certificate the person or persons, if any there be, ascertained by him to be of either of the classes whose importation is hereby forbidden….”

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur on 6 May 1882, provided a 10–year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration, on the premise that Chinese laborers were a threat to good order in certain localities. It also required that Chinese already living in the United States obtain a certificate for re-entry to the country if they left for any reason. This was the first U.S. law to ban immigration based on race or nationality. Beginning with this act and continuing through 1942, restrictions on Chinese immigration created a body of records known as Chinese Exclusion Case Files.

“…That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500 for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and may be also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year….”

The Immigration Act of 1882, passed on 3 August, levied a 50 cents tax on all aliens landing at United States ports. The money collected was to be paid into an “immigrant fund” to defray the expenses of regulating immigration and for the care of immigrants “in distress” after landing. The legislation also gave powers to authorities designated by the Secretary of the Treasury to deny entry to any convict [excluding those convicted of political offenses], lunatic, idiot, or others suspected of being unable to take care of themselves.

“…If on such examination there shall be found among such passengers any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same in writing to the collector of such port, and such persons shall not be permitted to land….”

In order to better define which Chinese were eligible to enter the U.S., Congress broadened the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to apply to all persons of Chinese descent, “whether subject of China or any other foreign power.” These 1884 amendments to the Chinese Exclusion Act laid out detailed definitions of “exempt” Chinese, and government-issued certificates were specified as the “only evidence permissible” to establish an individual’s right to enter the United States.

“…to be evidenced by a certificate issued by such Government, which certificate shall be in the English language, and shall show such permission, with the name of the permitted person in his or her proper signature, and which certificate shall state the individual, family, and tribal name in full, title or official rank, if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, when and where and how long pursued, and place of residence of the person to whom the certificate is issued, and that such person is entitled by this act to come within the United States.”

Following the anti-Chinese riots of 1885–1886, the Chinese government agreed to work with the United States in limiting Chinese emigration in return for the protection of Chinese people and property within the United States. An agreement, known as the Bayard-Zhang Treaty, was reached in March 1888, prohibiting Chinese immigration or the return of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for twenty years, unless the laborers had assets worth at least $1,000 or immediate family living in America. The United States government agreed to protect Chinese people and property in America. After tremendous opposition from Chinese living in both China and America left the ratification of this treaty in doubt, a bill authored by William Lawrence Scott of Pennsylvania was passed by the U.S. Congress prohibiting all Chinese laborers who left the United States, including those who might leave in the future, from reentering the country. Known as the Scott Act of 1888, this legislation also canceled all previously issued “certificates of return,” which denied about 20,000 Chinese then overseas and in possession of these certificates the ability to return to the United States.

“That no Chinese laborer within the purview of the preceding section shall be permitted to return to the United States unless he has a lawful wife, child, or parent in the United States, or property therein of the value of one thousand dollars, or debts of like amount due him and pending settlement. The marriage to such wife must have taken place at least a year prior to the application of the laborer for a permit to return to the United States, and must have been followed by the continuous cohabitation of the parties as man and wife.”

Congress extended the term of all previous Chinese Exclusion Laws for an additional ten years with the Geary Act of 1892. The act also required Chinese living in the United States to carry a “certificate of residence” at all times. Failure to do so could result in a year of hard labor and deportation unless the individual could prove to the court that he had a reason (e.g., sickness, accident) for having been unable to procure a certificate and could prove that he was a resident of the United States at the time of the passage of this act “by at least one credible white witness.” Chinese were also excluded from appearing as witnesses in court.

“…That any Chinese person or person of Chinese descent convicted and adjudged to be not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States shall be imprisoned at hard labor for a period of not exceeding one year and thereafter removed from the United States, as hereinbefore provided…..”

After almost three weeks of debates in the Senate and House, the Scott Act of 1902 extended the ban on Chinese immigration indefinitely, and also specified that “said laws shall also apply to the island territory under the jurisdiction of the United States.”

…That all laws now in force prohibiting and regulating the coming of Chinese persons, and persons of Chinese descent, into the United States, and the residence of such persons therein, including sections five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, thirteen, and fourteen of the Act entitled “An Act to prohibit the coming of Chinese laborers into the United States” approved September thirteenth, eighteen, hundred and eighty-eight, be, and the same are hereby, re-enacted, extended, and continued so far as the same are not inconsistent with treaty obligation, until otherwise provided by law…”

Buried amid “An Act Making appropriations to supply deficiencies in the appropriations for the fiscal year ending June thirtieth, nineteen hundred and four, and for prior years, and for other purposes,” the exclusion provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1892 and 1902 were made permanent with the Chinese Exclusion Extention Act of 1904. Exclusions were also extended to citizens of the Philippines.

“…said laws shall also apply to the island territory under the jurisdiction of the United States, and prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers, no citizens of the United States, from such island territory to the mainland territory of the United States, whether in such island territory: Provided, however, That said laws should shall not be apply to the transit of Chinese laborers from one island to another island of the same group; any islands within jurisdiction of any State or the District of Alaska shall be considered a part of the mainland under this section.”

Under the Expatriation Act of 1907, all women acquired their husband’s nationality upon any marriage occurring after that date. This meant that U.S.-born citizen women could now lose their citizenship upon marriage to any alien. They were, however, able to regain their U.S. citizenship when said alien husbands naturalized unless they married Chinese, Japanese, or other men racially ineligible to become naturalized citizens. Additionally, because the husband’s nationality now determined that of the wife, a married woman could no longer legally file for naturalization under her own right.

Children born abroad to alien parents could acquire U.S. citizenship upon the naturalization of their parents during their minority, once the minor child him or herself began to reside permanently in the U.S. Children born abroad to U.S. citizens would be required to swear an oath of allegiance before a U.S. consul upon reaching the age of majority if they wished to retain U.S. citizenship.

U.S. citizenship could also be lost under the 1907 Expatriation Act for (1) naturalization in a foreign state, (2) taking an oath of allegiance to a foreign state, or (3) for residing for five years in a foreign state, or two years in the foreign state from which he came. However, no American citizen was to be allowed to “expatriate himself when this country is at war.”

“…That any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband. At the termination of the marital relation she may resume her American citizenship, if abroad, by registering as an American citizen within one year with a consul of the United States, or by returning to reside in the United States, or, if residing in the United States at the termination of the marital relation, by continuing to reside therein…”

The Immigration Act of 1917, passed by Congress on 5 February 1917, levied a head tax of $8 for every alien entering the United States, with the exception of children under the age of sixteen accompanying their mother or father. It also denied entry to immigrants from what was called the Asiatic Barred Zone, “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” (including much of Asia and the Pacific Islands), as well as banned entry for certain ‘undesirables,’ including, among others, idiots, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, paupers, alcoholics, convicts, polygamists, and anyone with a physical or mental defect that might impair their ability to earn a living. Prostitutes and anyone involved in or with prostitution were also restricted from immigration under this act. Children under the age of sixteen were not allowed to enter unless accompanied by a parent or somehow otherwise able to demonstrate that they were not likely to become a public charge. Individuals who did not pay for their own tickets came under extra scrutiny.

In addition, the 1917 Immigration Act required all alien immigrants over the age of sixteen, other than those who met certain exceptions, to demonstrate their literacy in the language of the aliens’ choosing. If they were unable to pass the provided reading test of 30 to 40 words, they were subject to exclusion from admission to the United States. However, any alien who was admissible, or had been previously admitted, could bring in his father or grandfather over fifty-five years of age, his wife, his mother or grandmother, or his unmarried or widowed daughter, whether or not they could read.

“…That the following classes of aliens shall be excluded from admission into the United States: All idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons….persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons…certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living; persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists…; anarchists…; persons who are members of or affiliated with any organization entertaining and teaching disbelief in or opposition to organized government…”

To “prevent in time of war departure from or entry into the United States contrary to the public safety,” the Wartime Measure of 1918 provided that the President could, by proclamation, impose additional restrictions or prohibitions upon aliens entering and/or leaving the United States if it was felt to be required for public safety. It also required all U.S. citizens departing or entering the country to bear valid passports and provided for possible deportation and fines for those attempting to travel under false papers.

…That after such proclamation as is provided for by the preceding section has been made and published and while said proclamation is in force, it shall, except as otherwise provided by the President, and subject to such limitations and exceptions as the President may authorize and prescribe, be unlawful for any citizen of the United States to depart from or enter or attempt to depart from or enter the United States unless he bears a valid passport….

In 1922, Congress passed the Cable Act, which allowed women who married foreigners eligible for naturalization to retain their U.S. citizenship. However, women who married aliens racially excluded from the naturalization process lost their U.S. citizenship.

“…That the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman….That any woman who marries a citizen of the United States after the passage of this Act, or any woman whose husband is naturalized after the passage of this Act, shall not become a citizen of the United States by reason of such marriage or naturalization; but, if eligible to citizenship, she may be naturalized upon full and complete compliance with all requirements of the naturalization laws, with the following exceptions…”

©2021 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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