History of Illegal Immigration

The history of illegal immigration in the United States can be traced back to 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur's ban on certain groups resulted in legalization of immigration.
OpinionFront Staff
Illegal immigration comes heavy on the nation's economy; that's something which has been proved time and again. Whilst going through the history of illegal immigration in America, you come across numerous instances wherein Federal government has been severely criticized for allowing the illegal practice to go on unabated. Statistics compiled over the last few decades speaks volumes about the Federal government's inability to stop this practice. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 9 - 20 million illegal immigrants in the United States as of today.

Reality of Illegal Immigration: A Historical Perspective

Immigration in the United States began when humans migrated from Asia to North America during the Ice Age. In the true sense though, the continent was introduced to Europeans only after Christopher Columbus discovered it in the 15th century. Other than the mass immigration following Columbus' visit, large-scale immigration was also recorded in 18th and 19th century. While 15th century immigration was restricted to Europeans, the United States had become a sought-after destination for people from all over the world by the beginning of 19th century. It was during this period that a large number of people from Asian countries came to America.

As large-scale immigration began to pose problems for the economy, President Chester A. Arthur passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a ban on the entry of Chinese immigrants in the United States. Before this, the Federal government had passed a law banning the entry of convicts and prostitutes, but that didn't make waves like President Arthur's decision to bring an end to Chinese immigration did. Arthur followed this decision with a new law that barred the entry of criminals, paupers, and mentally-ill people. Though it didn't have major implications on the nation, it did draw a line between legal and illegal immigration.

The Ellis Island, the first Federal immigration station located at the New York Bay, was the world's portal to the United States. Those who entered the country from here were required to prove their identity, answer some questions, produce a person (a relative or friend) who would vouch for them, and―most important of all―come clean in the physical examination. If the person failed the physical examination, he was put on the same ship and sent back to the place from where he came. Owing to strict implementation of these rules, ships heading for the United States used to carry out a physical examination of people before they boarded the ship to save the trouble of bringing back the same person, as it resulted in financial losses for them.

As passport was not required before 1918, the concept of illegal immigration didn't exist back then. The Immigration Restriction Act 1921 was passed as a temporary legislation to restrict immigration in the United States. Even though the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place all this while, it didn't really serve the purpose. Around 17,300 Chinese immigrants entered the US territory from the US-Canadian and US-Mexican borders between 1882 and 1920. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1921 restricted the number of immigrants from a said country to 3 percent of the number of residents of that country already living in the United States as of 1910 Census reports.

The first Quota Act of 1921 was followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which brought down the number of immigrants admitted to the country to 2 percent. Even though both the Acts played a crucial role in US immigration policies to follow, the fact that they didn't restrict people from Mexico and northern Europe turned out to be a negative point. In 1927, the US Labor Secretary revealed that their estimates put the number of illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States at 1,000,000. One of the main reasons for illegal immigration to flourish, was the fact that it was backed by businessmen who got cheap labor from it. In 1928, in his testimony before the US Senate, Edward H. Dowell, the vice-president of the California Federation of Labor, revealed that the number of illegal immigrants who entered the nation in 1927 was in multiples of 67,000 who entered the country legally.

The Great Depression brought down the number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, by a great extent. Estimates suggested that somewhere around 500,000 Mexicans left the US between 1929 and 1939, as a result of deportation and large-scale unemployment. In the 1940s, labor shortage forced the US administration to come up with programs to bring in Mexicans. In the 1940s and 1950s, around 4.5 million Mexicans were brought into the country to provide cheap labor as a part of Bracero Program. However, most of these immigrants continued to stay in the United States even after the Program was scrapped in 1964.

As a result of Operation Wetback, which was launched during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's tenure, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States had come down by a whopping 95 percent by the end of 1950s. However, the number of migrants who violated the clause of Bracero Program and continued to work in the United States illegally resulted in a steep rise in this number once again. Between 1892 and 1954, when the Federal immigration station at the Ellis Island was in operation, as many as 12 million immigrants were allowed to enter the United States through this facility. Statistics reveal that the number of illegal immigrants who entered the country during the same period was much higher than this.

After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which resulted in scrapping of the National Origins Formula, was passed by the Federal government, the number of legal immigrants in the United States increased by a significant extent. Alongside it, increased the number of illegal immigrants in the country, with a number of legal immigrants losing their legal status as a result of overstaying and violation of visa terms. Even today, the population of the United States is fueled by immigrants who enter the country illegally and violate the US immigration policies and national laws.