Immigration Act of 1882

The Law: First comprehensive immigration law enacted by the U.S. Congress

Date: Enacted on August 3, 1882

Significance: Setting the basic course of United States immigration law and policy, the Immigration Act of 1882 established categories of foreigners deemed “undesirable” for entry and gave the U.S. secretary of the treasury authority over immigration enforcement.

The 1882 Immigration Act was the first comprehensive immigration law enacted by the federal government. As such, it would have enormous consequences for future immigration legislation. The act built the framework for federal oversight over immigration and delineated categories of “undesirables” who would be barred entry to the United States. Through the first century of American independence, immigration had been relatively open, with only occasional oversight and restrictions imposed by individual states. By the 1870’s, however, increasing pressure was brought to bear against immigrants, especially Chinese laborers in California. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, which served to reduce immigration of women fromAsia. Overall immigration continued to increase, however, with the year 1882 seeing the largest number of immigrants in American history: 788,992 persons. In response, Congress passed two historic immigration acts. The first was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, suspending immigration of Chinese laborers.

The second was the Immigration Act of 1882, which was enacted on August 3 of that year. This act was the first comprehensive immigration law to deal with federal oversight and categories of exclusion. As to oversight, the law gave power over immigration enforcement to the secretary of the treasury, who was already responsible for overseeing customs in U.S. ports. The Treasury Department was mandated to issue regulations for the orderly admission of immigrants and to collect a “head tax” of fifty cents for each arriving immigrant to defray administrative expenses.

The Treasury secretary was authorized to enter into contracts with individual states to administer immigration entry. As to categories of those deemed undesirable, the act prohibited the entry of “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Carried over from the immigration rules of several states, the “public charge” doctrine served to bar arriving foreigners who could not show the financial ability to support themselves. Foreigners denied entry were returned to their starting points at the expense of the ship owners. Interestingly, the act made an exception for foreigners convicted of political offenses, reflecting the traditional American belief that the United States is a haven for those persecuted by foreign tyrants.

The specifics of the Immigration Act of 1882 would soon be amended, but the contours of federal oversight and categorical restrictions that it established would remain. In 1891, Congress established exclusive federal control over immigration through a superintendent of immigration, the forerunner of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. States would no longer play a role in the official administration of immigration affairs.

In 1903, Congress, alarmed by the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and by the specter of political radicalism and anarchism, acted to end the 1882 law’s exemption for political offenses, forbidding immigration of persons “opposed to organized government.” The exclusion of those likely to become public charges remained a fixed element of American immigration law, presenting a potential obstacle to poorer immigrants. In 1917, 1921, and 1924, Congress added exclusions by national origins to the list of undesirables. National origins quotas would be the centerpiece of immigration policy in the decades to follow. The specifics of the Immigration Act of 1882 had been altered; however, its focus on federal oversight and exclusion by categories had set the framework for immigration law for the following century.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. 
  • Gunderson, Theodore. Immigration Policy in Turmoil. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science, 2002. 

See also: Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885; Bureau of Immigration, U.S.; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Congress, U.S.; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1921; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration law; Page Law of 1875.

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