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Immigration Act of 1891

The Law: Federal legislation that increased government regulation of immigration

Date: Enacted on March 3, 1891

Significance: Beginning in 1882, responsibility for administering U.S. immigration law, excluding the Chinese exclusion law, rested with the individual states. In the Immigration Act of 1891, the U.S. Congress assigned responsibility for enforcing immigration policy to the federal government in an effort to increase the effectiveness of immigration law. The act also expanded the list of excludable and deportable aliens.

In the light of several concerns over immigration law, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1891, which included provisions intended to secure closer inspection and provide more effective enforcement of immigration law. The 1891 act centralized responsibility for enforcement of immigration law in the federal executive branch, tightened regulation along the land borders, and expanded the list of excludable and deportable immigrants.

Of paramount importance to Congress in 1891 was the centralization of enforcement under the executive branch of the federal government. Under the Immigration Act of 1882, the secretary of the treasury was responsible for executing the provisions of the act, but he did not hire and directly oversee the agents who would regulate immigration. The law mandated that state governors determine which state agency or officials would be responsible for enforcing federal immigration law. After the governor identified the agency, the secretary of the treasury then entered into contract with that state agency. By this law, the national government had broad authority over immigration restriction. While the secretary of the treasury was nominally responsible for immigration regulation, most of the responsibility rested with the states because the state agency responsible for enforcement immigration restriction continued to be statebased.

In the Immigration Act of 1891, Congress made the secretary of the treasury responsible for prescribing rules for inspection of the nation’s coastal ports and its borders with Canada and Mexico. The 1891 act created the Office of Superintendent of Immigration. The new executive or bureaucratic office would comprise three clerks and a superintendent appointed by the president, who all worked under the jurisdiction of the secretary of the treasury. By 1894, this federal bureaucracy had become the Bureau of Immigration. The 1891 act, therefore, charged officers of the U.S. government, who were employed directly by the Office of Superintendent of Immigration, with carrying out the inspection and deportation of immigrants. Local or state officials would no longer directly enforce immigration restrictions. The superintendent of immigration was responsible for hearing appeals from aliens, but Congress assigned jurisdiction over cases arising out of the act to the circuit and district courts of the United States.

While the Immigration Act of 1882 regulated coastal borders, it did not regulate the contiguous borders, and immigrants crossing either the U.S.- Canadian or the U.S.-Mexican border entered the nation largely without inspection. Reports estimated that, in six months before the passage of the Immigration Act of 1891, as many as fifty thousand immigrants entered the United States from Canada without inspection. With the Immigration Act of 1891, Congress began tightening regulation of the U.S.-Mexican and the U.S.-Canadian borders.

The 1891 act also extended the federal government’s power to deport immigrants beyond Chinese workers and contract laborers. The act listed all the existing categories of excludable immigrants: “idiots,” the insane, paupers, and polygamists; persons liable to become a public charge; people convicted of a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; and sufferers “from a loathsome or dangerous” contagious disease. This act connected each of these excludable categories with a deportation provision, so that all these categories were now both excludable and deportable.

Torrie Hester

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. 
  • Hutchinson, Edward Prince. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. 
  • Salyer, Lucy. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 

See also: Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885; Bureau of Immigration, U.S.; Congress, U.S.; Deportation; Geary Act of 1892; History of immigration after 1891; Illegal immigration; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1903.

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